Syrian-Americans struggle with human cost of revolt

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Story highlights

  • At fundraiser, expatriates reflect on violence and fear
  • Many fear that families will be punished for political activism
  • Government continues to blame terrorists for violence

Far from the mortar shells and sniper fire, Syrian-Americans are trying to cope with the humanitarian crisis plaguing their beloved country since the southern city of Daraa sparked an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's police state in March 2011.

"With us being here, the question that is always hurting us the most is: Where is this going to end up? It hurts to watch these people every day coming out to protest just to try to make a difference in their life and really to try to make difference in the lives of so many other people," said Abboud Malla, a Damascus native.

In stark contrast to the bloody violence and destruction crippling cities and towns across Syria, several hundred guests gathered Saturday night in Atlanta for an elegant dinner at the Georgia World Congress Center.

"Those who are away from Syria, today Syria lives in their heart. Even if they no longer live in Syria, they carry it in their hearts," said Shahir Raslan, an Atlanta-area mechanical engineer turned fundraiser for a series of humanitarian relief charity events across the United States.

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After more than 40 years under the al-Assad dynasty's authoritarian rule, Syrians abroad carry battle wounds and deep-seated fears of a ruler whose name many did not even dare to utter until revolt gripped their country. But despite the brazen show of defiance on the ground, many abroad remain concerned that political activity may harm relatives back home.

"This is a stepping stone. Being a humanitarian event, it's one cause we could all unite on and move forward on, but there is still fear, and understandably. I have fear. My family has fear. My neighbor has fear. This is how it is. They have built a blanket of fear for the past 40 years," said Amira, a graduate student who did not provide her last name out of concern that her family in northern Syria may face consequences.

The Syrian regime maintains that the government and its citizens are victims of armed terrorist groups and a foreign conspiracy intent on dividing its people and territory. Members of the opposition dispute the government's stance and claim that al-Assad's troops have launched a full-scale military assault to impose collective punishment on dissenting cities and towns.

"I think one of the most frustrating things to watch is ultimately, a lot of people here have been divided on what is the best path for Syria, and our delay has resulted in more deaths on the ground. The longer we are sitting here fighting about what's right, what's wrong, people are dying every day," Amira explained.

Regardless of the differences among the diverse Syrian-American community, their personal stories created a bond that moved the group to action.

"When I think of my uncle ... these tears are really a daily occurrence for us now. Anytime we watch any video or hear any news or any child that has been tortured or killed, no matter where you are from, the humanity in you has to take over," Yasmine Jandali said. She fought tears as she explained how her family members in Homs, trapped in their homes by snipers, smuggle food by dangling baskets from the back balcony for fearless activists to drop off a few basic supplies.

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Memorabilia decorated with Syria's 1961 independence flag, now a symbol of the opposition movement, adorned the hall, but the organizers insisted that "A Syrian Affair: A Night of Humanitarian Relief" remained apolitical.

"We are not here for the Syrian revolution tonight; that was nine months ago. We are here because Syrians are fighting for the right to survive. We are here for the innocent men, women and children. This is a humanitarian issue, not a political one," Raslan said before starting a fundraising bid.

In only a few hours, the group managed to raise nearly $300,000 for the Syrian Sunrise Foundation, a Michigan-based nonprofit that provides humanitarian relief to victims of the conflict.

"Even something tiny like this -- which is really just a drop in the bucket compared to what people are going through and what their needs are, because their needs are just huge for the humanitarian assistance -- that really motivates me to want to be involved," Jandali said with an optimistic smile as she cleared unsold auction items after the charity event.

For the tens of thousands of Syrians, physical distance from their homeland strengthens their emotional ties to the bloodsoaked land. The U.N. estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed in a year of unrest, but after months of calling for huraiyah -- "freedom" -- many at the Atlanta event plead only for insaniah, or "humanity."