San Diego Syrians Back Protesters Amid Threats
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Aired 1/19/12 on KPBS News.
They say they’re prepared to follow the lead of their loved ones back home and be willing to die until Assad’s regime is toppled.
The powerful reach of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in muting Syrian protesters may extend to San Diego.
When San Diegan Halim Gabori plunged into mobilizing local support for the Syrian uprising, one of his security firm employees received a call from a man with an unambiguous message.
“Tell your boss to watch himself," Gabori said.
Amnesty International says the Syrian government and its supporters have watched and harassed pro-democracy Syrian protesters in the U.S. and elsewhere. Gabori said Assad has used every government branch.
“Even the embassies and consulates in the U.S. were doing the Syrian government’s job by spying on us," he said.
He approaches the threats with fatalism and guilt.
"I was worried," Gabori said. "But then my family is going to go anyway, so why worry? I've stopped worrying now because people are opening their chest for bullets. And here we are sitting in comfortable chairs right now and having all kinds of food. We can do whatever we want to. We have beautiful freedom to speak. So that and other reasons I think makes the fear less."
News out of Syria is filled with tales of disappearances, imprisonment torture and massacres. Since the start of the 10-month uprising, more than 6,000 people have been killed including hundreds of children.
Mahmoud Harmoush is president of the San Diego chapter of The Syrian American Council. He checks British, American and the Al Jazeera news websites hourly for information on his homeland. It’s information he cannot get directly from his relatives in Syria because of fear.
"Over the phone they cannot say much, Harmoush said. "It’s only by scripted language. They will say things like `we do have fresh air. It is okay to have bread today,' which means really they don’t have anything left. Everything is gone…like oil for warming houses. In fact just today, somebody called me and said they have not been with electricity for 9 days.”
Harmoush said few are spared from the government’s crackdown.
“Even my mom in front of her house which is like in an old town, they have three or four tanks stationed there day and night and when observers came they covered the like old cars,” he said.
San Diego County has 1,500 Syrian families. Many wish to lend their support for the uprising anonymously out of fear for relatives in Syria who might suffer reprisals because of their anti-government efforts.
Gabori said Syrian-American participation in the reform movement has translated into lobbying policymakers.
“We do write letters," Gabori said. We do make phone calls. We do go and visit politicians in our neighborhood. We bring them to our meetings.”
Up to 500,000 Syrians live in the United States. They include Muslims, Christians and Kurds. One Syrian American who has voiced his support for the anti-government protests is Abdulfattah Jandali, the biological father of Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple.
“I reject the brutality and killing that the Syrian authorities are committing against the innocent Syrian people," Jandali said. "And because silence is participation in this crime, I declare my participation in the `Syrian Sit-in’ on YouTube."
Syria has banned the use of the iPhone because of cellphone footage capturing the brutal crackdown by Assad’s forces.
But Harmoush said the ban’s effect is negligible because Syrians have awakened from decades of despotism. That’s why when he realized nascent protests early last year had gained momentum, he was overcome.
“I was crying," he said. "I felt that people had returned to life and they really want out of slavery and oppression. I was in Syria in 2009 and I felt that people are dead, for real this time. They want freedom in democracy.”
What is not known, Harmoush said, is how Assad will relinquish power.
Video by Nicholas McVicker