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Syrians' Path To Freedom

Shako Liu |
July 19, 2012 | 1:43 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

A Syrian American protests in Huntington Beach. (Photo by Shako Liu)
A Syrian American protests in Huntington Beach. (Photo by Shako Liu)

Every time Khaldoun Kataf spoke about his family in Syria, he would choke back tears.

The 45-year-old man left his wife and three children behind on Feb. 5, 2012, and fled to a refugee camp in Jordan. He could barely contact them after the escape because the Syrian regime monitored all incoming international phone calls. Last time he checked, the government found out about his family and beat them. He said his daughter was in coma.

His sadness, however, turned into fury when speaking of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“He is not human,” Kataf said, his voice shivering with anger.

The internal uprising in Syria started in March 2011 as a part of the wider Arab Spring.  Civilian protesters demanded an end to the 40 years of the Ba’ath Party rule, led by President Assad. The ongoing revolution has claimed more than 17,000 lives, often killing hundreds each day.

In a recent interview, President Assad accused the U.S. of supporting the Syrian uprising or the “armed gangs” that were destabilizing the country.

But Kataf and the Syrian Americans protesting alongside him are upset that the U.S. government is withholding military intervention. In their experience, life in Syria prior to the uprising was sheer terror under the dictator where simply mispronouncing a word could lead to trouble.

Muhannad Barazi, a Syrian American born in the U.S., learned that lesson first-hand. At the age of 12, he went back to visit his family and was still learning to read Arabic. He saw a sign on the street and mispronounced the word into something that sounded like “the penis of Ba’ath.” His cousin’s face instantly changed and so did those who heard him.

“Everyone assembled and spit. My cousin grabbed me by my hand, and dragged me down the alley,” Barazi said. “And he said ‘Run! Run!’ After we ran, I was like what are we running from?”

He later found out that if his carelessness had been reported, his parents could have been beaten and taken for ransom.

“You should watch...look around and make sure there is no wrong person listening to you or watching you,” Barazi said.

For Kataf, the government had strong control over his his business in Syria– an oil processing plant. He said he was forced to partner with the government and couldn’t do business without bribing the government officials. He said that over the course of three years, he was arrested three times and received tremendous torture because the government wanted to rob him.

Kataf paused in anger and sadness when he tried to recall the tortures. He described being locked in a foul-smelling dark cell where there was no space to lie down to sleep. He was beaten and given only one piece of leftover bread each day. Then, he was told that as long as he paid about $8,000, he could be released.

“Basically the first thing you’ll be thinking is I am going to make it out alive?” Kataf said.

When the upheaval started, Kataf quickly became one of the active protesters against the regime and experienced three massacres. He filmed the one on Mar. 23, 2011, on the main street in front of the diplomatic intelligence agency. In the video, snipers started shooting at the protesters when they were marching down the street. Blood ran like a river as many people were killed, including a teenage boy who was shot in the mouth.

During another protest, Kataf said two men on either side of him were shot, one in the head and the other in the stomach. Their blood splashed all over his shirt. He buried the shirt before he fled the country and owed it to luck that he didn’t get killed. He said that the soldiers had a daily quota for killing civilians, and behind those snipers, there were security forces waiting to shoot down anyone who refused to kill.

His dual Syrian-American citizenship, plus his participation in protests, soon made him one of the targets of the Syrian regime. Kataf hid in his oil plant for fear of getting caught. He said that in Syria, there were multiple security check points. On Feb. 5, 2012, a soldier he used to take care of in the army informed him that the regime was coming after him and warned him to leave the country.

Seventeen hours later, Kataf arrived in Jordan with the help of the Free Syrian Army, a troop constituted by defected soldiers. Once he crossed the border, he declared himself as a refugee, and subsequently went through a series of interrogations.

Refugee life in Jordan, however, was difficult. Kataf couldn’t find a job, and the Jordanian government required the refugees to have a Jordanian citizen as an endorser who would pay a large penalty fee if they left Jordan without permission. Kataf couldn’t stay. He said the Syrian government bought off some Jordanian officials, and that they cut off the medical service for the injured refugees. He came to Southern California on May 14, 2012, and settled in Anaheim.

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, the communications director of the Syrian American Council– a grassroots organization to promote civil rights in Syria– said many Syrians who come to the U.S. usually have families or other connections here. They come on tourist visas and try to change their immigrant statuses after they arrive. Others can’t afford to come.

The U.S. government provides temporary protected status for Syrians. Jeffrey Heller, an immigration lawyer in New York, won asylum for a Syrian family in February, but the family came to the U.S. long before the uprising started. Heller said the temporary protected status is not an asylum. It allows the applicants to stay in the U.S. by a certain date and it can be granted for a variety of reasons, such as for an earthquake or persecution.

"The difficulty for Syrian refugees to seek asylum in the U.S. is fundamentally the same as any other refugee," said Heller, explaining that the U.S. government often assumes immigrant intent of every foreigner, even though many of his clients actually miss their home. What frustrates Heller about the system is that it mostly depends on who the adjudicator is.

“Historically, some immigration judges grant 90 percent of the cases before them; others deny over 90 percent,” Heller said.

He added that though the asylum form seems straightforward, the “devil is in its details" and that the chaos in Syria can present additional challenges. Heller argued that when proving a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, the ambiguity is hidden between harm and persecution.

“In a civil war, which is arguably what Syria is now experiencing, while there may be persecution targeting people on one of the five aforementioned grounds, there also is a lot of generalized violence,” Heller said. “If people are being slaughtered without regard to one of those five grounds, our law may not provide asylum relief.”

Kataf said no one can help his family– only God. He is trying to find a job in the U.S. to gain financial independence and is trying to figure out his next move. Though he may be worried and threatened at times, he said it has never been enough to keep him from protesting until President Assad is gone.

“[It's] scary,” Kataf said, “But it doesn't scare me enough to stop.”


Reach Staff Reporter Shako Liu here. Follow her on twitter here.



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