Closer Look

Syria’s civil war felt on home turf

Over half of Aleppo's population has been displaced by fighting, according to the Daily Mail. Photo courtesy of Mohannad Rachid.

Death, displacement and destruction is on the minds of Syrian-Americans in Chicago. The four-year-long civil war in Syria has affected people from the Middle East to the Midwest.

The war has largely been out of Americans’ view. Until the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the conflict was something far away, affecting the U.S. minimally. For Syrian-Americans, however, the conflict is all too real. Friends, family and their former homes have been swept up in a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people, 74,000 of whom were civilians.

The Phoenix spoke with four Syrian-Americans, each with unique perspectives on the conflict, but their stories had similarities: frustration and weariness from a war that has gone for nearly half a decade and an odd mixture of hope and fear for the future.

The Syrian community in Chicago is moderately sized. According to census data from 2011, more than 1,000 Syrians live in the city with more than half of the population coming from abroad over the last several years.

While many Syrians came looking for better economic opportunities in Chicago, some are refugees.

A number of Syrian-Americans live on Devon Avenue, branching into Lincolnwood. Others live out in suburbs such as Burr Ridge, where Mohannad Rachid, a 20-year-old senior finance major at Loyola, commutes from.

Rachid went to Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, in January 2013 to distribute medical equipment and over-the-counter drugs to the war-weary people. While there, Rachid learned more about how some Syrians view the civil war.

“Most of the Syrians there are pro-revolution,” Rachid said.

Rachid is affiliated with the pro-revolution organization Syrian American Council (SAC). With chapters all around the country, including one in Chicago, the council helps organize political support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel coalition against President Bashar Al-Assad.

While on a 2013 service trip in Aleppo, Syria, Mohannad Rachid experienced a city torn apart by war. Photo courtesy of Mohannad Rachid.
While on a 2013 service trip in Aleppo, Syria, Mohannad Rachid experienced a city torn apart by war. Photo courtesy of Mohannad Rachid.

Assad assumed power after his father, Hafez Al-Assad, died in 2000. Assad’s government came under international scrutiny in March 2011 when it violently stopped protesters who were inspired by the 2010 Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia and Libya. The peaceful protests turned to violent riots, which eventually lead to an open revolt to overthrow the government.

Amr Kawji, 23, a sophomore film student at Columbia College Chicago, has helped SAC raise funds through events such as a Chicago-based Ramadan dodgeball tournament this past June. The funds supported civilians caught in the conflict and sent money to a refugee camp in Jordan.

“When it first started, we had this drive for activism,” Kawji said. “The era of activism began in Chicago. We had flash mobs, rallies against the chemical weapons massacre.”

There are groups who are on the other side of the conflict, such as the Syrian American Forum (SAF). The SAF tends to be less critical of Assad’s government, and the group is against the rebellion because it created violent conditions in Syria. Some members feel foreign agents and extremists have taken over the rebels.

The SAF is also affiliated with an aid organization, the Syrian American League (SAL). The League sends aid to people affected by the Syrian conflict both inside and outside of the country. It holds events at local restaurants, the last of which was more than a year ago at the Rosana Restaurant off of Lincoln Avenue. They have a simple PayPal donation system.

Mounzer Ahmad, a Lincolnwood-based realtor and affiliate of the SAF, said he feels that outsiders are trying to meddle in the affairs of his homeland.

“I am on the side of what is right for the Syrian people,” he said. “The majority of people feel the government is legitimate.”

Ahmad moved from Syria to the U.S. 28 years ago, looking for better economic opportunities. Coming here, he hoped to begin anew, but still kept in touch with his family abroad. Ahmad said he just wants to raise his family and live a quiet life in America.

When the conflict broke out, he was outraged at the media portrayal of events.

“There are some in the media who wish to make news instead of report it,” he said.

He joined SAF to reach the American public and show what he feels is the real situation in Syria.  Ahmad feels the rebellion was spurred by foreign governments, primarily neighboring countries Jordan and Turkey.

In supporting the rebellion, these countries, including the U.S., have ended up being duped into supporting what Ahmad considers “terrorists.”

Despite being far away, and, to his own admission, an outsider, Ahmad still feels very attached. He contacts his family in Syria almost every day, he said.

Ahmad explained that he is not against opposition as long as it protests peacefully. He recounted a story of his brother-in-law, a journalist for the state media who was arrested for showing corruption in the regime.

“There is a right way to criticize the government and a wrong way,” he said. “The wrong way, of course, is through violence.”

Despite differing views, both the pro- and anti-revolution sides seem to feel a genuine concern for their homeland: a country, torn apart by a war that has gone on for nearly half a decade.

Many Syrian-Americans feel the impact of the conflict here in Chicago.

For example, Kawji’s family, who lives in the besieged city of Aleppo, has dealt with the brunt of this conflict.

Aleppo is a major economic hub and has been a conflict zone since February 2012. Rebellious soldiers from the Syrian Armed Forces left the army and created the FSA. Before that, there was no organized resistance outside of protesters. Eventually, a stalemate ended the fighting between the government-backed troops and the FSA. Now, the Islamic State is getting involved, creating a three-front war in the economic capital of Syria.

Aleppo is Syria's biggest metropolitan area. Photo courtesy of Mohannad Rachid.
Aleppo is Syria’s biggest metropolitan area. Photo courtesy of Mohannad Rachid.

“Seventy-five percent of my family has fled,” Kawji said. “Only a few of my immediate family stays in Syria. Some don’t even live in their houses. They live with friends, or other people’s. I know my aunt is housing 12 people. My uncle finally left with his four daughters. He was reluctant to leave, but it’s going to get so bad.”

Kawji’s family housed his uncle for a few months until he could get a stable job and live with his daughters in a rented home.

Rachid also experienced the dire conditions when he was on an aid mission last January. While he was in Aleppo, he saw the tactics used by government forces and the toll it has taken on the people. He saw also the damage left by bombs, usually crude TNT barrels thrown out of planes.

“We were meeting with the commander of the [local FSA] battalion,” Rachid said. “We were just discussing future Syrian politics. It was a pretty good time. Then all of a sudden a war plane came, literally 300 meters away, and just dropped the bomb, a TNT barrel.”

Rachid’s group of aid volunteers were all young Syrians-Americans. The oldest was 24 years old. Rachid was only 18 and one of the youngest volunteers. Growing up in a peaceful country, he had never experienced such an event.

“We went outside and all we could see was a bunch of broken glass,” Rachid said. “Out in the distance we could see smoke rising. One of the FSA guys went on his motorcycle to check it out, and when he came back he told us 18 people died, just like that.”

The plane’s target was not military, according to Rachid. It was a two-story building, likely an apartment complex. For Rachid, it was one of the scariest moments of his life.

“Literally 5 minutes after it happened, the war plane comes around and just swirls over the town,” Rachid said. “Just to screw with us, they just flew over the city. All you could hear was this loud engine noise.You had no idea where it was going to drop a bomb next.”

After the attack, the townspeople went back to their daily lives. “Kids went back to playing,” he said. “A woman went back to doing laundry. That was probably the most messed up part of it.”

Other parts of Syria are far less desperate. Dana Kashlan, 20, a junior and a psychology and biology double major at Loyola, heard from her family in Syria’s capital city, Damascus, that the situation there is much more stable than in Aleppo. Kashlan’s family lives in the heart of Damascus, close to the presidential palace.

“If that area gets bombed or any kind of conflict hits there, you will know that this is ending,” Kashlan said. “You will know that the regime is going to fall.”

Kashlan’s grandmother, who recently left the city due to its failing economy, told her that the city used to be bustling, but now everyone goes home by 6 p.m.

For Syrian-Americans in Chicago, the connections to Syria still run deep, but some people, like Rachid, can’t help but feel some level of disconnection.

“My opinions about the conflict come from my family over there,” he said. “I feel like I can’t fully comment on the situation on the ground, as I’m over here, but I have to say something.”

Graphic by Elizabeth Greiwe.
Graphic by Elizabeth Greiwe.
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