Point of no return
Florida’s Syrians and Libyans organize for change in their home countries, even if that means never going back
Published: July 7, 2011
It was near the end of April when Dena Atassi, a 26-year-old Syrian-American teacher and Orlando resident, posted a graphic video to Facebook. “Watch Syria’s Secret Services dressed like street thugs as they get ready to beat peaceful protesters to a bloody pulp,” she wrote. “These devils will get what’s coming to them – maybe not from the Syrian people, but from the Lord who created them and the people they unjustly harm."
Atassi’s post was not remarkable for its content – since the pro-democratic Middle Eastern revolutionary wave, dubbed the “Arab Spring,” spread to Syria in mid-March, countless videos of government violence against protesters have surfaced online. What was remarkable was that Atassi – who was born in Florida but spent five years of her life in Syria – had broken with her family’s long-standing policy of keeping her feelings on the Syrian government to herself. Her father is an exiled dissident who arrived in Florida in 1978, and Atassi is convinced that the Syrian government has been monitoring him since at least 1980 – the year a former neighbor in her family’s hometown of Homs was tortured by the Syrian military and gave the authorities her father’s name, along with four others, during an interrogation. Twenty years later, Atassi says, a colleague with connections to the Syrian government notified the Atassi family that the regime knew her father had built a mosque in Orlando because the information was in his file.
“If you’ve ever read George Orwell’s 1984, that’s Syria,” she says.
To demonstrate the fear that the Syrian government can inspire even thousands of miles from Damascus, Atassi recalls the story of one Syrian exile in Florida who spent a Fourth of July “trembling by the front door with a rifle in his hand,” while his three kids hid in a closet, because the man thought the sound of exploding fireworks would provide ample cover for an assassination attempt.
But today Syrians within Syria proper are now openly defying the Assad family, which has ruled the country for more than 40 years – it’s reported that more than 1,500 people have been killed by government forces since the uprising began in March. It wasn’t long after protests picked up momentum that Syrians began challenging family and friends overseas to support the revolution. This message sent to Atassi via Skype on April 25 just about says it all: “If the people in Syria are going out [and protesting], then why are the ones outside [of Syria] scared???”
As a result, like many other Americans of Middle Eastern descent in recent months, Atassi has become a telecommuting activist of sorts – she says she puts in an average of six hours per day “working on Syria.” This includes translating first-aid tips into Arabic (she had noticed from YouTube videos that some protesters didn’t know to put pressure on wounds), organizing rallies and fundraisers, and getting the latest developments in Syria from a distant relative in Dubai who smuggled 150 smart phones to key organizers in the country. Atassi is convinced that the Syrian government is too busy with dissent within its own borders to worry about her activities in Orlando – she notes that Syrian jails are now so full that the government has reportedly used soccer stadiums to house protesters.
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