Originally published March 18, 2013 at 6 a.m., updated March 18, 2013 at 3 p.m.
Yasser AlSaied, President, Syrian American Council in San Diego
Michael Provence, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History UC San Diego
More than 100 activists gathered at Santee Lakes on Sunday to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the Syrian uprising, including some newly-arrived Syrians who were rallying to help their war-torn homeland.
Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, more than 70,000 have died and thousands more are missing, according to the United Nations. The humanitarian crisis hit a grim milestone last week when the number of Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland reached one million. The UN estimates nearly 8,000 flee every day.
Some have come to San Diego, including Maysoon Aziz. She worked as a protocol officer at the American embassy in Damascus until it was shut down in February of 2012. Aziz and her family moved to San Diego soon after because she had other family in the region. She said she can’t stop thinking about the Syrian children.
"Many families were displaced, they went to Jordon, to the neighboring countries . . .I’m sorry that I’m so emotional, but thinking of my children here, that they are happy, they go to school, they have food -- it’s hard," Aziz said. "It’s hard to explain it."
Aziz said her parents also arrived to San Diego from Syria two weeks ago, and she's expecting more refugees to follow.
"We are hearing lots and lots of people are coming because things are getting dangerous there," she said. "Not necessarily to the [United] States, but definitely they are leaving. And there is no airport now in Syria, so in order to come over they have to travel to a neighboring country to come over. So it’s a long long, long trip."
Moe Al arrived to San Diego to attend graduate school just two days after the start of the revolution. His parents and 11-year-old brother still live in Aleppo, Syria. He said his father is a doctor there, but the hospital he worked at was bombed and it's no longer safe for him to go to work.
"They’re getting their essentials, like living essentials like bread . . but it’s so hard," said Al. The prices are like ten times higher then it used to be. My little brother stopped going to school. He’s just studying at home. My family is trying to keep him updated with school and education.”
Al said with the embassies closed, his family is unable to get a visa.
“I’m trying to help my family, trying to help them help other people . . .transfer funds, transfer any humanitarian aid. Seeing people suffer for two years . . it’s time for them to live their normal life," said Al.
Some San Diego Iraqis attended the event to offer their support. Wedad Schlotte said they empathize together and understand each other very well.
“Syria, I consider it one of our sister countries. We are neighbors, we have a very similar culture, very similar aspiration. Our people have a lot of similarities --their ambitions, we love literature, we love our heritage, we are proud of it, we are very serious about our lives.”
The picnic and prayer event was organized by the San Diego chapter of the Syrian American Council. The group is working to step up efforts to provide food and supplies to refugee camps along the Syrian borders, and to draw a renewed attention to the crisis.
Maureen Cavanaugh, Amita Sharma and Patty Lane contributed to this report.