When Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai was just shy of 19 years old, she fled her hometown of Damascus, Syria with her family; her parents were facing death threats from the Bashar Assad regime. She came to Washington in 2005, and since then, as she has gone to college and started a career in Washington Mideast policy work, she has also watched in horror as her native land has self-destructed. What began as a people’s revolution has turned, as she puts it, “very dark,” as the murderous regime which chased her from her home faces off against murderous jihadists from Al Qaeda and ISIS—with average Syrians caught in the middle. Oula, who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sat down with me last week to talk about her own story—and her country’s—in a moving interview about what it’s like to leave a place just in time to see it engulfed in flames and savagery. We talked about the literally millions of refugees who have not found asylum in America, and about the international community’s failure to protect Syrians from the predations of both their own government and the opportunistic foreign jihadists who showed up as things got bad.
This was a very personal interview for me. Oula’s step-father had been a visiting fellow at Brookings some time before he had to flee Syria, and as a result, had a close relationship with my wife. When the family left Syria, they thus initially came to our house, where they stayed for a few weeks until they settled in an apartment of their own. The events Oula describes in this interview are fresh in my memory, though I had never previously heard her take on them. As Oula is the first to say, she is one of the luckiest of the Syrians displaced by the madness that has destroyed that country. She is here. She is not in a refugee camp. She has gotten an education. There are literally millions of displaced Syrians whose stories are even more harrowing than the one she tells here.