By Tara Bahrampour, Published: January 8, 2012
Every night, as most of her neighbors in Silver Spring are going to bed, Khawla Yusuf opens her laptop and plunges into a revolution.
Using Skype or Facebook, she connects with Syrians who have been trying for 10 months to change their government. She watches footage, recorded on shaky cellphones, of protests in distant towns and listens to her countrymen describe the surreal daily life of a nation under siege.
The threats have not deterred the family, whose activism began years ago in Syria. In 2002, they founded a minority-rights organization in Syria that criticized the government. In 2005, after the organization accepted funding from abroad and Abdulhamid publicly called the president “an idiot and a Fredo Corleone” — a reference to the spineless middle son in “The Godfather” movies — the family fled to the United States and received political asylum.
Once here, Abdulhamid worked with the State Department training Syrian citizen journalists. He is currently a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy.
The family has started the Syrian American Network for Activists and Dissidents(SANAD), which has raised nearly $10,000 to send to refugees and families of those arrested or killed. The Abdulhamids also have sent cameras, satellite phones and smartphones to activists in Syria.
Before this year, Syrian Americans tended to see political activism as dangerous. When the uprising started in March, support here was sparse.
“At one point you could count us on one finger, the ones supporting the revolution,” Abdulhamid said. But as the crackdown continued, more Syrian Americans came forward.
Mazen Hamad, 56, a doctor in Raleigh, N.C., who moved to the United States 30 years ago, initially hesitated to use his name on a pro-opposition Facebook account.
“But then I saw people getting killed, going to prison and disappearing, and then I felt sort of guilty or silly that people are paying a bigger price than anything that would happen if I used my name,” Hamad said.
Others are still reluctant, even as they contribute money to the opposition. “I was supportive in my heart,” said another Raleigh doctor who did not want his name used. “I support them secretly.”
Nazih Zarif, president of the Syrian Arab League of America, a 300-member pro-regime organization formed in Allentown, Pa., in September, says most Syrian Americans oppose the uprising. “We believe in the reforms that Bashar al-Assad is doing,” he said. “Syria will be soon a measurement for others in the Middle East for democracy.”
Syrian Christians in particular have been divided about the uprising. Some fear they could be persecuted under a new regime, said Bassam Bitar, chairman of the board of trustees of the Washington-based Syrian Christians for Democracy and a co-founder of SANAD. “We try to preach to every single Christian and we try to convince them.”
Recently, the Abdulhamid family sat in their home’s sunroom, where Mouhanad’s iPhone periodically burst out with the sounds of cheers, screams and whistles from a rally that day in Syria.
Yusuf often speaks with people who can hear bullets outside their houses. Sometimes a regular correspondent will disappear without warning.
It is, she says, hard to be so far away.
“I need to be with my people, my friends,” she said. “Here in America I have no role, I’m just one person who sleeps, who eats and so on. . . . I want to be there, even if I get killed.”
“Stop!” her son said. “We’ve lost enough. We’ve left everything behind. Your brothers were in prison, your father was killed [decades earlier, when Assad’s father was Syria’s president]. It’s enough. You keep saying you want to go — it’s hurting me, it’s hurting us. Please stop saying that, please!” Tears welled in his eyes.
“Okay,” his mother said quietly. This was not the first time this argument had erupted.
Oula, too, said she wishes she could be in Syria. Instead, she has been connecting with other young Syrian Americans via social media.
She brought her face close to her laptop screen and, with a big smile, spoke to someone in Syria as if she was addressing the entire country.
“Happy New Year! Hopefully we’ll get our freedom, and hopefully you’ll be fine.