My parents fled Syria in 1980 to escape the prevalent political persecution at the time. Their first stop as fugitives was to Jordan, where they lived in a three-bedroom apartment with two other families. Despite the instability and uncertainty in their lives, they were consumed with a profound sense of gratitude to be alive. While their circumstances were difficult, my mother often reminisces about her days in Jordan with a smile. She remembers the graciousness of her friends and the undeniable unity she felt with other Syrians who had fled from their homeland. When my mother became pregnant with me, my parents moved to Saudi Arabia where my father had found a job. For the first time since their escape, my parents no longer had to worry about affording basic necessities such as food and clothes.
Three years prior to my birth, my parents were newlyweds in Aleppo, Syria, and seemed to have a beaming future ahead of them. My mother was pregnant with my eldest sister and in medical school while my father was working as an engineer. What sparked a bond between my parents was their shared vision for political change in Syria. This vision was the thread that wove the fabric of their love. The ruthless dictator Hafez Al-Assad was president of Syria at the time and ruled the country with an iron fist. My parents were members of an opposition movement interested in political reform. When Assad learned of this underground movement, he responded by imprisoning thousands of men and women, most of whom did not have any political involvement. The president wanted to create a state of fear and suffocate any threat to his power.
My father was imprisoned in 1979. My mother was pregnant with my eldest sibling at the time he was captured. The guards crammed him with so many prisoners he could hardly sit in his cell. In fact, the inmates took turns sleeping due to the limited space. Prisoners had regular interrogation sessions where guards took pleasure in torturing them with metal rods, whips and electrocution, demanding that the prisoners confess to their supposed crimes and give up the names of their friends and family members who were involved in the opposition.
Over a year into my father’s captivity, the unthinkable happened. One of the guards offered him an opportunity to escape. The oppression and unspeakable torture this guard witnessed everyday spurred in him the courage to risk his life to save seventeen men. The guard strategized an elaborate plan that allowed the men to escape their prison cell, marking a long and perilous journey to flee the country. Half the escapees, including the guard, did not make it out of the country and were eventually caught, viciously punished, and then killed.
My father was one of the fortunate few who managed to cross the landmine-infested border into Jordan. He then organized a meeting time and place with my mother. By then, my mother had given birth to a baby girl whom she had to leave behind with her parents so as to protect her child from the grave danger ahead.
While my parents understood the immense blessing of freedom God had granted my father, they ached for their daughter and lived in constant fear for their family members who remained in Syria. They knew they could never return to Syria and began searching for a new life. They traveled from country to country looking for stability.
In the meantime, the persecution in Syria had worsened and Assad wanted to send a horrifying message to his people. In February of 1982, the same year that I was born, Assad ordered the murder of 50,000 residents of Hama, Syria. Journalists were banned from reporting in Syria so the massacre took place under a cover of darkness. Assad ensured that his people would live in constant fear and would not dare think of opposing him again. The shiver that ran down the spine of every Syrian after witnessing the Hama Massacre persisted for thirty years.
The brutality of the Syrian government was so widespread that I have yet to meet a Syrian who has not been affected by it in some way. In my case, I would never meet my paternal grandfather. He was kidnapped by the Syrian secret police in the middle of the night while wearing his pajamas. The secret police interrogated him about the whereabouts of his son, then punished him with a bullet to the head for his son’s crime of escaping from their clutches. One of my father’s brothers suffered the same fate, while another of his brothers was imprisoned for fourteen years.
Thirty years later the silence has been broken and the fear has been lifted with the rise of the Arab Spring. Many Syrians see the current uprising in Syria as a miracle. When the first statue of Assad was toppled my parents watched and re-watched the video in disbelief. Thousands of protesters in Syria have taken to the streets to demand freedom and they are ready to die for this cause. Unless, you've lived in Syria, you can't imagine how shocking and preposterous this revolution has been. People were afraid to say the president's name and now they were toppling his statue.
So far, at least 10,000 protestors have been killed and many thousands are being tortured in jail cells at this moment. The jail cells are so full that the government has resorted to using schools and other public buildings to hold prisoners. Bashar Al-Assad, the son of Hafez Al-Assad and the current president of Syria, has taken evil to a new level by brutally killing hundreds of children and even resorting to torture of children as a scare tactic. In fact, the Syrian Revolution was sparked by fourth graders who had their fingernails pulled off for writing anti-government rhetoric on their school walls in Daraa. I am forever haunted by the pictures and videos of Hamza Al-Khatib, the 13 year old boy tortured to death for peacefully protesting. This young boy shares my last name. He could have been my brother.
Today, my parents have a newfound hope that Syria will be free. Their hearts beat in unison with the Syrian people as my parents continue to participate in protests and opposition outside of Syria. While Syrians relive the nightmares of their past, this time there is hope for change. This time, the world is watching. Journalists are still banned from Syria, but the government cannot silence the cell phone cameras and social media pages of every day civilians who continue to document the brutality of the Syrian regime.
The Assads can no longer coat the streets of Syria red with the blood of their own people without consequence. The Arab Spring has brought with it a new era that has no room for oppressive regimes. Patrick Henry put it best when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death”. The recent Arab revolutions reaffirm the power and universality of this principle over 200 years later.