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Point of no return

Florida’s Syrians and Libyans organize for change in their home countries, even if that means never going back

Photo: Aldrin Capulong, License: N/A, Created: 2011:06:18 13:49:44

Aldrin Capulong

But the decision to come out of the dissenter’s closet is not without sacrifices: Like other Syrian-Americans who have spoken out against the crackdown, Atassi says she cannot return to Syria until – or unless – the Assad regime is toppled, given that she’s created a traceable record of her opposition. “They’d torture me, for sure,” she says. And there’s also the lingering fear that those still living in Syria could be hurt in retaliation for her activities. Though Homs is Syria’s third-largest city, with an estimated 1.5 million people, and though “Atassi” is not an uncommon name in Syria, she is still hesitant to reveal details about her family living there. It’s a fear familiar to many Syrian-Americans, such as Reem Al-Nahhas, a recent graduate of the University of Florida who lives in Panama City, Fla., and also has family in Homs.

“When we talk to [our family], and they’re telling us what’s going on, we have to speak in code,” Al-Nahhas says. “So it was really shocking for me to speak to my 7-year-old cousin, and she was telling me [about Syrian army helicopters], and she was like, ‘Yeah, we were playing outside and these birds started flying, these three birds … so we had to go inside.’ I was a little confused, and then I was talking to my aunt, and my aunt was like: ‘Yeah, birds. You know: birds.’ And I was like: ‘Oh.’”

Syrian-Americans like Al-Nahhas and Atassi have had to reconsider their friendships – real and digital – in the aftermath of the uprising. “For the Syrians who are active, we don’t, and we can’t, trust each other,” Atassi says. She gives the example of a friend who posted anti-Assad slogans on Facebook immediately after the first protests broke out in Syria. “She started so unbelievably early being expressive against the regime … to me, it almost felt like nobody would speak up that early, publicly, unless that they knew that they were safe,” Atassi says. “A lot of Syrians have made deals with the government: ‘Let me say whatever I want, and I’ll give you names of people who are agreeing with me.’”

On the other hand, Atassi has allied herself with locals hailing from other Middle Eastern countries in the midst of revolution. One such Orlando resident is Wafia Sayf, a Libyan-American who works at a community college and says she devotes nearly all of her spare time to the Libyan issue. For her, this means orchestrating humanitarian relief for Libyan refugees overseas, arranging financial support for Libyan college students in Central Florida impacted by the freezing of the Libyan government’s funds and spending hours on online comment boards “rectify[ing] some of the assumptions people may have about the revolution.” Sayf raises money partly through the website libyagear.com, which features pro-revolutionary T-shirts and other goods, many of them branded with the date Feb. 17, which is when the Libyan uprising against the government of Col. Muammar Qaddafi began. She says the money is directed fully towards humanitarian relief. With the aid of activists in Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio, for instance, Sayf recently arranged for a semi-trailer full of toiletries to be shipped by sea to Tunisia, a neighboring country to which some Libyans fled after Qaddafi’s forces laid siege to their towns (and also where the Arab Spring began in December of last year).

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