WASHINGTON ― For six years, Syrians have endured unimaginable collective punishment. Revolution became civil war and brutal atrocities chased civilians out in the millions, killing many along the way.
Now, as we mark another anniversary of a conflict whose end seems nowhere in sight, we also mark another moment: America simultaneously shutting out those very people who marched peacefully for dignity, freedom and democracy in March 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings.
For me, a Syrian American in Washington, the past few months under U.S. President Donald Trump have been frustrating to say the least. But I feel more at home than ever.
Growing up in our nation’s capital, it’s easy to forget what the rest of America is like. We’re in a Washington bubble far removed from much of the country. This city attracts diverse people from all walks of life. And many of us are highly educated, informed, involved and progressive. Trump’s victory thus came as a shock to me and those around me. Yet it also ushered in a new sense of stability that I hadn’t expected.
I came to the United States with my family as an asylum seeker in 2005 after direct death threats were made against us by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. For generations, my family stood up to the Assad dictatorship by remaining active in civil society and pushing for social and political change. My grandfather, a historian, thinker and author, was tortured and killed in the Assad prison camps in 1982. At the time, he publicly denounced the Hama massacre and violence committed by then-President Hafez Assad, father of Bashar, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as both sides fought over power in Syria. The Syrian intelligence confirmed his death in 2011 via a phone call after the Syrian revolution erupted.
Over the years, my relatives dispersed around the world looking for a safer life. When we left Syria a little over a decade ago, we left behind everything, save for a few essentials. My mother decided to keep our childhood photographs there thinking that we’d soon return. But we never did.
We blocked our feelings of loss, anger and despair over the home to which we can never return so long as Assad remains in power.
Yet a part of us never left. In 2011, when the demonstrations began, we tried to echo the voices of those inside Syria. We protested in front of the White House and put pressure on the U.S. government to support the movement. We diligently worked to raise public awareness about the Syrian revolution. Each dissent in each Syrian town and city made us feel like we were not on our own in our fight against the Assad dictatorship, like we were united even so far away from home.
But even with that glimmer of hope in 2011, the move to America was tough. We were alone, uprooted, in dire need of a sense of shelter. With time, we adjusted. Washington made us feel welcome, and we soon fully adopted this city as our own. We blocked our feelings of loss, anger and despair over the home to which we can never return so long as Assad remains in power. And a little over a year ago, we became American citizens.
But in November, when it became clear that Trump had won the election, I feared things may change again. Most people I came across in Washington were dreading Inauguration Day when all of his supporters would be rallying in our backyard. We thought that the city’s soul would change. That we’d feel like strangers in our own town. And as an immigrant with a Muslim background, I questioned whether once again I’d have to move for my safety.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that deep inside, my family and I have always felt like strangers here despite the warm welcome we’ve received. Like uprooted trees trying to branch out to the sky and hold tightly to our few remaining roots, we were constantly bleeding as we struggled to deepen our grip.
As an immigrant with a Muslim background, I questioned whether once again I’d have to move for my safety.
Donald Trump’s move to Washington felt more like an invasion than the usual peaceful transition of power. He violently forced himself into our psyche and conscience, shaking our well-being, city, country and world.
Given this, you would think that the targeting of Syrian refugees and Muslims in the U.S. would have made my feeling of isolation worse. But I actually don’t feel so out of place anymore.
I am proud to call myself an American and a Washingtonian. Not because the president resides among us here or policies are debated every second, but because of the people. Trump’s inauguration ignited a fight in our city and all over the country. Despite our differences, each of us is actively standing for the values that we believe in. And knowing that I am not alone in this fight ― knowing that Americans care about Syrian refugees, even when our president’s 120-day ban on refugee resettlement will take effect around the Syrian revolution’s sixth anniversary ― is an amazing feeling.
As I protested six years ago for Syria, today, I protest with my fellow Americans both for our own rights and for the freedom those fleeing violence and conflict deserve, too.
Instead of banning innocent refugees, why don’t we stop dictators from bombing civilians and slaughtering children?
Despite the xenophobic wave, refugees are innocent people. All they need is a fresh start in a safe place to raise their families and live in dignity. Banning Syrian refugees is equal to sentencing them to death. They’re already dying in Syria! It’s a shame that we’re keeping the weakest people out of our country, allowing a large-scale Voyage of the Damned to happen when we’re fully capable of taking so many vetted refugees in.
The U.S. is the beacon of hope, the symbol of inclusivity ― the dreamland for most people. Instead of banning innocent refugees, why don’t we stop dictators from bombing civilians and slaughtering children? Why can’t our government stop the total destruction of an ancient country and help its people rebuild it?
As the conflict in Syria drags into its seventh year, there is some small hope that progress could be made. U.S. troops are now on the ground in the country trying to assist in taking back Raqqa, the infamous capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Will this so-called “invasion,” as Bashar Assad has called it, change anything?
As a Syrian, the deployment of more American troops into Syria makes me think that Trump may actually be serious about using military measures to eradicate ISIS and pave the way for safe zones inside Syria.
The deployment of more American troops into Syria makes me think that Trump may actually be serious about using military measures to eradicate ISIS.
While many have been critical of this approach, I believe it could be a major step towards solving the Syrian crisis if implemented in cooperation with Russia. The peace talks have failed continuously because they lack international agreement, which is needed to halt the armed struggle in Syria, usher in political transition under international supervision and eventually help refugees return and rebuild.
I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not sure if this part of Trump’s Syria strategy will succeed, but I do know that turning away refugees in a travel ban won’t help anyone. Blocking refugees without offering a real safe alternative will not stop terrorism. It will not end the refugee crisis. And it will only embolden all kinds of criminals to keep terrorizing us abroad and here at home.
In spite of the polarization the Trump era has brought these last months, today, I feel at ease with the knowledge that there are those who are willing to stand up to his exclusive ideology. These people have confirmed my belief that we are all in this together. Not only women, refugees, Muslims, minorities and those marginalized by our new president. But we, Americans.
The polls show our division, but I think we’re more united now than ever. Millennials are fully aware that this is the struggle of our generation. That we must stand up and fight for our freedoms and rights. It is our duty to resist. It is our time to protect the exceptional American values we all believe in and that our democracy was built on.
I cannot be robbed of my deep belief in the American ideals. American exceptionalism is a state of mind that stands the test of time.
Like many of you reading this, I’ve struggled to come to terms with what this new president means for me. But for all the doubt and confusion I have felt, the ongoing messages of support from friends, neighbors and colleagues have filled my heart with power, love and respect. They showed me that I cannot be robbed of my deep belief in the American ideals. That American exceptionalism is a state of mind that stands the test of time.
From Syria to America, I have never let fear control me or stop me from thriving. And I won’t allow it to now or in the future. I left one home because I no longer felt safe, but this time, I will not leave.
This is not Assad’s Syria.
We don’t know what the next four years hold for us in Trump’s world, here and abroad, but we’re all targeted by this dangerous and frightening racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric. Yet the unwavering outcry of students, activists, politicians and lawmakers nationwide assures me that this terror cannot prevail in the end.
Because of all of you who continue to come out and challenge what you know is not right, I am more proud than ever to call myself a citizen of the greatest nation on earth. And I am certain that this division is only a temporary situation.
So, thank you, America!