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Syria's Plight 'Breaks My Heart'

09/19/13
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Ikram Easton (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Hennessey | Chronicle Staff

Published: Sep. 19, 2013

Ikram Easton, who teaches Elementary Arabic in the Slavic and Eastern Languages Department, emigrated from her native Syria in 1998, and last visited there in 2000. She left behind her two sisters and a brother, along with aunts, uncles, cousins and many friends. She spoke with the Chronicle’s Sean Hennessey earlier this week about events in her homeland. 

For months we’ve been seeing on the news a country divided by civil war. What is the Syria that you know, the country that you remember?

The Syria that I remember was completely different than what we are seeing right now. For decades, there was stability in the country. Atrocities were in neighboring countries – it never felt like that in Syria. We have always been a secular country, a safe country. The Syria that I remember is full of history that dates back to the start of history, basically.

I remember the sounds of minarets coming from every mosque mixed with the sounds of bells of churches. It was a glorious harmony, the glorious sounds of churches — living in true harmony. That’s what has made Syria unique for a century. That’s what makes Syria very valuable, very rich in its culture, because of its harmony existing among Muslims and Christians.

What do you make of the civil war that has been going on for more than two years?

The bloodshed is just so great, it’s just too hard – the human suffering, the people that have died already, the number is just too great to bear. Syria is not Libya, Syria is not Iraq, Syria is not Egypt, either. Syria was very unique in the sense that all Christians and all minority groups were protected for decades. You never think this is going to happen.

It is very complicated. To see men firing arms on these sacred places, I know the Muslims of Syria would not do that. I know the Muslims of Syria that we grew up with — with whom we ate Ramadan iftar at their dinner table, and who cracked eggs on Easter with us — would not kill priests and abduct bishops and fire arms on holy places. These are not the Muslims of Syria. They are, by definition, a group that is linked to Al Qaeda: Al Nusra — that’s what they call themselves for saving the people of Syria. They were formed in 2012 and they came to help the rebel group. The rebel group is not Syrian anymore. I’m terrified of the thought that Al Qaeda is building a base in Syria in order to turn the country around.

I’m afraid of what’s coming. The country is in turmoil. I don’t know if President Bashar al-Assad out of power is a good solution and I don’t know if supporting the rebels is a good solution because the rebels are receiving support from Al Qaeda.

When you heard about the chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21, what went through your mind?

When this chemical weapon attack took place, my heart just stopped. Immediately I rushed to the phone and said, “I’ve got to call my sister.” I have family and friends everywhere. I went to call and of course I couldn’t get through because the lines were busy. Later on that day, after trying and trying, I heard from social media that they were OK.

It’s just devastating, to see those pictures of children, it’s just devastating.

Where does your family live? How are they doing?

I have family members throughout Syria. My siblings live in Latakia, which is under government control. I have extended family who live in Damascus, and also in Aleppo, which is under the rebel group. I have family members in Maaloua, the city that just recently got attacked by the rebel groups. They are terrified. They are very, very scared of what could be happening. It’s hard for me to imagine how their life has been. They’re living a very low-quality life with very limited electricity and medicine. When they leave the house, they don’t know if they are coming back alive. They just don’t know. It’s just fear of what is happening now, and the fear of what is happening next is even more frightening.

My own cousin died. He was 42 years old. He was in his truck – luckily he left his daughter at home. He was driving and his truck “was needed,” and he refused to leave his truck. He was taken out, and killed, for his truck. For his truck. They killed somebody for a truck.

Every time my phone rings at four in the morning I immediately think it’s the news I’m dreading most. And whenever I talk to my sister I say, “Why don’t you go to Lebanon? Why don’t you go somewhere? Why do you want to stay there?” All my siblings say, “We’ve been here since the dawn of Christianity. We’re not leaving. All we’ve worked for all our lives is right here.”

What do you make of what’s happened to your country?

It’s frightening. It’s heartbreaking. Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city of our world, and to see the history destroyed — whether it’s by the regime side or the rebel side — and innocent people and children dying, on a daily basis - 100,000 innocent people – I can’t fathom this idea.

Life has been paralyzed. People have been living in great fear for a couple of years now. People have been living without jobs, without schools, with a limited food supply. I can’t imagine what the generation is going to be like after this whole thing is over.

You said earlier that you are unsure which of the two, President al-Assad or the rebels, would be best for Syria. Can you elaborate on that?

I’m not a big fan of al-Assad to begin with, and I’m definitely not a fan of Al Qaeda. So all I care about right now is how can we help the people that are displaced, the people that have very little to live on? It’s been two-and-a-half years of nothing but miserable life.  There’s no question about it that atrocities are being committed. No one denies that and both sides of the conflict have committed crimes. And who is paying for that? The people of Syria, the history of Syria is paying for that; Syria has been destroyed by some ignorant people who don’t know the value of that history that exists in Syria.

When it comes to US involvement, was working with Russia on the elimination of chemicals weapons the right move, or should the US have gone in alone?

I’m heartbroken about all the bloodshed that took place and will undoubtedly continue to take place if the US intervenes in the fashion that’s been discussed. The human cost in Syria is already too high and I believe bombs and cruise missiles will only increase the suffering, bloodshed and devastation.

If we bomb Syria right now and weaken the regime, we don’t know which group is going to take over. We don’t know if Iran or Hezbollah might decide to do something and support the regime, so we are strengthening both sides of the conflict. For what? For more people to die on both sides?

I’m tired of this. Let’s focus our interests on how to help, how to extend the hand to help the people who already lost their homes, who already lost everything in their life. The children that lost their lives — as a parent, as any parent, just the idea blows my mind. Just to think an innocent child died because of atrocities of civil war.

What are your thoughts on the Russian-led proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons?

The Russian proposal is a good option for all parties, right now. At least it stopped the immediate thought of bombing Syria. To me, putting it on hold for a little while is a winner, in my opinion. I mean, there’s enough bloodshed as it is. We don’t need any more violence. The violence has taken its toll on Syria – we have had enough of that. Whatever comes out of this proposal will be positive, I hope. And putting hands on the chemical weapons is definitely a protection against more bloodshed and more suffering.

Let’s focus on what is happening right now. Let’s save the people who are dying, not just because of bombs or because of a chemical weapon or because of a rifle. Let’s save the people who are dying of hunger dying of being misplaced, the suffering of every single family.

So the only international intervention you’re interested in is humanitarian, and a way to get both sides together to end this conflict?

Absolutely. And I would not vote for anything else. Let’s take care of where we are right now. Because we know the killing will continue, probably for years. We know this is not going to end tomorrow; there’s no foreseeable victory for either side right now and refugees will continue to go to neighboring countries and that will provide instability in the region and Syria is a big part of that.

So let’s try to provide more relief, let’s try to send more food supplies, hygiene supplies. They need whatever we can offer them right now. Whatever we do for them just is not enough. Anything that helps to bring all parties to the table, trying to negotiate, trying to understand how this bloody war can end soon, would be welcomed.

Do you think the United States should get involved on a humanitarian basis?

Absolutely, absolutely. In my opinion, this should have been done a year, two years ago. I mean, what are we waiting for to help them? I definitely think US intervention is a must. To see 100,000 people die – we just have an obligation towards them being the country that we are. But bombing is not the way I would prefer. It’s not the answer. It doesn’t help anybody. The focus of [US intervention] should be on diplomacy and negotiation. Let’s figure this out.

But is that even a reality? Al-Assad has made it clear he’s not going anywhere.

Well, Russia intervened and he said, “Well, yes, I’m willing to let chemical weapons be under international control.” So there’s a sign there. I would say we have unlimited resources in this country to employ peaceful negotiations. Let’s see, because challenging the government or challenging the rebels is not doing any good - more people are dying. That’s why we are leaders of the world essentially, that’s what made us special — to try to intervene and save lives, not to add more to that death toll.

How are you incorporating the Syrian crisis in your classes?

I’ve always integrated culture into my classes. I try to introduce the topic to my students and I turn it into a teachable moment where we talk about, for example, “What do you think about the language the president used in this particular speech or this particular red line crossing?” So that’s how I approach at least the cultural component into my classes. I’ll let the politicians and political science majors talk about that and analyze, but in my lectures, we talk about the language.

Do you ever see this crisis in Syria coming to an end?

If it is, it’s going to be a long time. I don’t know what to say about this except that I don’t see it ending and if it is ending, where is it going? Into the hands of the regime that committed crimes, or into the hands of the rebels that committed more crimes?

That’s what breaks my heart – when you’re in a war, you know you’re fighting an enemy, you have a cause, you’re fighting for your principles. But when you’re in a war like this, you just don’t know. 

I’d like to close with this prayer that I wrote: May peace and justice be brought to Syria, by the hands of those who have the fear of God in their hearts, and abundant mercy on their hands.