Today marks the eleventh anniversary of the peaceful Syrian uprising against Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. The peaceful uprising turned into a brutal war against the people of Syria. According to UNHCR, “more than 13 million people have either fled the country or are displaced within its borders.” The war is still ongoing.
My family’s country house in Darayya, outside Damascus, haunts my dreams. In my sleep I watch myself weeping, blubbering, aching, only to wake up with dry tears telling myself “I am too strong to cry … I can only cry in my dreams.”
Bolstered by Vladimir Putin’s military, our country house was razed by forces loyal to Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad. For over a decade now I, along with most Syrians, have attempted to overcome the ongoing violence thrusted on our collective consciousness. Yet the gut-wrenching images, videos, sounds and pleas of the Ukrainian people flooding our mobile screens as Putin’s cluster munitions rain horror over their cities viciously brought back all the torment we have buried deep in the rubble of our fragile beings.
In 2012, Darayya – a small town near the capital region not yet infamous for the anguish, massacres and absolute destruction that followed, similar to many Ukrainian cities now – put up a brave fight against Assad’s military invasion and subsequent siege. From 2012 to 2016 the Syrian military, with Russian and Iranian ordinance, aircraft and artillery subjected Darayya’s men, women and children to the worst forms of collective punishment. Their fault was marching peacefully for democratic change during the Arab Spring uprisings. (These uprisings may have inspired Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, which demanded the creation of an inclusive democratic government.) As they resisted Putin’s bloodthirst, both uprisings in Syria and Ukraine were dubbed Revolutions of Dignity before they were crushed. And within mere minutes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, social media posts comparing the two war-ravaged countries side-by-side began to appear.
Crumbling in the face of resistance and unable to retake control of revolting cities like Aleppo, Homs and Idlib, the Assad regime invited Russia to intervene in September 2015. Peace activists who encouraged defection amongst the military were systematically targeted. They were intentionally excised after being labeled as germs and hostile organisms by Assad himself, whose propaganda encouraged the false narratives of warmongers to fester. The Russian military quickly launched airstrikes against Homs, giving the United States and its Western allies very little notice. In a similar fashion to Russia’s attacks on Kharkiv in 2022, Putin’s military indiscriminately targeted hospitals, schools, and civilian centers around Syria, wiping out entire neighborhoods and setting a major refugee crisis in motion that threatened European stability.
Much like now with Ukraine, in the beginning the world condemned the violence in Syria. The UN Security Council convened multiple times while international and social media outlets spread information and misinformation. Meanwhile the Russian propaganda machine found “alternative facts” and justifications for war crimes committed by the Assad military and militias. Crippling economic sanctions were imposed by the West, but the Assad regime survived nonetheless with support from its close allies in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing. Ultimately, similar to what might happen in Ukraine, the West justified its inaction in Syria as an attempt to contain the conflict and prevent rapid escalation. Unarmed Syrian civilians, like their Ukrainian counterparts filled with hopes for democracy and economic prosperity, found themselves caught in between the claws of old foes.
I am entering the 11th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution in Washington, D.C., the city my family chose to make home after fleeing Syria in 2005. Passing through Farragut Square on the bus from Union Station to Georgetown recently on a sunny late winter Sunday, I told a dear friend sitting next to me that each spring seems to bring with it a new wave of protests at the White House, mere blocks away. Seeing the blue and yellow flags carried by demonstrators in support of Ukraine overwhelmed my senses and brought back heart-rending memories I have tried to bury deep within me, just like I buried the images of destroyed Syrian cities. Scenes of Syrians, and others, chanting in Lafayette Park in support of the Syrian democracy movement are ever present in my consciousness.
For years, starting in March 2011, we met each Saturday by the White House to remind those in power that we are here, and to tell our families and friends in war-torn Syria that despite western inaction and Russian viciousness, they have not been forgotten. With a poignant tone I told my friend on the bus that “soon the overwhelmed world will turn a blind eye to the Ukrainian tragedy. The likes, views, statements, and retweets will disappear, and the protests by the White House will disperse.”
Prior to Putin’s war on Ukraine, nearly 85 million people were displaced worldwide, and more children than ever before live as migrants or refugees, outside their birth countries.
I found community and support in America as a political asylee from Syria. I have said it before and I continue to say it, what we ignore we empower. As an American citizen, I believe we have the resources to help before our collective neglect can never be undone. “We the people” are the hope of the oppressed, in Syria and everywhere. Syrians, Ukrainians, Afghans – all refugees and immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, deserve to be met with welcome, compassion, and support.
As Ukrainian cities crumble under Russian bombs and UNESCO world heritage sites become centers for the internally displaced, the once unimaginable destruction will turn into a daily reality and the Ukrainian struggle will become yesterday’s news. Those inconsolable traumatized individuals caught in the rubble will find themselves alone hiding in tunnels, stuck at border crossings or in between the razed country houses they once called home. To them – and to all refugees across the globe – I say, we Syrians are here. Standing with you. You are not alone. You will not be forgotten.
Oula A. Alrifai is Assistant Vice President of Field and Constituencies at the National Immigration Forum. She is a former political asylee from Damascus, Syria.