The images we see of armed rebels and soldiers in Syria look nothing like the Syria 32-year-old Jamal Jawhar grew up in. He describes his hometown, Aleppo, as a place where it was safe to walk alone at 3am without a second thought.
Everything has changed since he left in 2010, pre-war. His mom, dad, sister, brother and his brother’s wife and four children fled to Turkey, where they’re living in a small apartment. (His brother, a doctor, continues crossing the border to see patients in Syria.)
Jawhar left Syria primarily to avoid compulsory military service. He studied English literature in college in Syria, and taught himself English conversation skills by hosting international couchsurfers.
At age 27, he won a Fulbright scholarship, his ticket to the U.S., and now teaches Arabic in Monterey. He spoke with the Weekly about the refugee crisis, his family and the country’s prospects.
Weekly: When the war first broke out and you were living in Nebraska, you declined an invitation to talk about it on an Omaha radio station. Why speak publicly about what’s happening in Syria now?
Jawhar: Anything I would’ve said could’ve been risky for my family. At that point, the government would monitor your emails, Facebook account and phone calls. Now, the government still has some power, but I don’t think they’re busy now with political opinions. And where my family is from, the government has almost no access.
What made me really active right now is that picture of the 3-year-old boy who drowned. Being a parent [of an 8-month old boy], it hit me really hard. I could’ve been that parent; I was just a luckier person who made it here in a time before the war started.
Were you optimistic about the early days of the Syrian uprising?
No. Soon after I came to the U.S., the Arab Spring started in Tunisia. I was scared at the beginning, thinking, this is not a good sign for Syria. I know how strong our government is, and that they wouldn’t step down like other governments did.
Have you been back to Syria since you moved here?
Being on asylum status, I cannot go to Syria. I don’t even have a Syrian passport anymore. And I still haven’t done my military service, so at the border, I could just be taken to prison, or given a gun and asked to shoot civilians.
Where do you get your news about Syria?
Mainly social media. I go on Facebook, and people post things from different sources and lots of videos from all over the world. It’s easy to learn about what’s happening right now; the information is out there.
How do stories you hear from friends back home match up with what we see in the international news?
What we mostly see here is people on boats. What we don’t know is, these people are luckier: They have cash to pay for the trip.
There’s a lot of scamming happening. My aunt was more comfortable than most people in my family. They sold everything, their dairy business and home. Everything was worth about half a million dollars. They were going to leave the country and go to Sweden. They were paid [in] cash, but it was all fake bills. Now they have no home and no money.
Last I heard from them, a few weeks ago, they were in [the port city] Latakia. I don’t know where they are now.
What do you think the U.S., Europe and other neighboring countries should do about surging numbers of refugees?
I would rephrase that question to what they should have done. If the international community had taken action sooner, it probably wouldn’t have been this bad by now.
The war has gone through different phases; during each of these phases, the international community could have done something. They failed.
How can people here reading this contribute to peace?
In the past, I tried to raise money, but I don’t think that’s the solution. What people need more than money is an open heart. The first thing is understanding. When you see them on TV, they are in a miserable state. You see pictures of people concentrated by thousands, or trying to run from the police. I was one of them. Any of us could be them.
Open your mind to see them as people like you. They want the same thing you want: to live a good, noble life.