Dr. Zaher Sahloul: When Syrians Become Americans

Zaher Sahloul is a Critical Care specialist at Christ Advocate Medical Center in Chicago. He volunteered in multiple medical missions to Syria and to the neighboring countries. He is an advocate for humanitarian aide in the Syrian crisis, refugee rights and immigration reforms. He is Syrian and Muslim American. Dr. Zahloul was one of three awardees named Chicago’s magazine’s Chicagoans of the Year in 2016. 

Four months after I arrived in 1989, my colleague at the hospital, Dr. Nancy Nora, invited me to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. I was homesick in a new country after graduating from medical school in Damascus. Nancy Nora was an Irish American from a large Catholic family. Her father was a respected local physician. Nancy told me that it was a tradition in her family to invite a newcomer to the city. After all, Thanksgiving, I learned, celebrated Native Americans welcoming European refugees who fled their homelands due to religious and political persecution. I came to Chicago from the Syrian city of Homs to pursue advanced medical training. Syrians look to the US as the best place to pursue this training. In fact, almost half of one percent of American doctors are of Syrian origin.

There are also famous Syrian actors, playwrights, rappers, chess players, entrepreneurs, scientists, businessmen, and even Republican governors. Every Syrian American is proud that Steve Jobs is the son of a Syrian immigrant. Syrian immigrant Ernest Hamwi invented the ice cream cone during the St. Louis World fair in 1904. “Everyone who enjoys ice cream and an iPhone should feel indebted to Syrian immigrants,” I remind my children, all of whom were born in Chicago. The eldest, Adham, ran his first marathon this year—to raise awareness about domestic violence—and aspires to a career in politics. Mahdi is involved in his university’s Students Organizing for Syria (SOS) chapter as well as the Black Lives Matter campaign. Marwa, a high school freshman, is a budding pianist and on her school’s cross-country team. They all volunteer in local charity events and for Syria. My wife, Suzanne, the daughter of a Syrian civil engineer and Canadian mother with Irish-Scottish roots, founded the Syrian Community Network (SCN) to help support newly resettled Syrian refugee families in the Chicago area.

To many Syrians, America symbolizes values we lack at home: freedom, rule of law, and the respect for human rights. In Syria, my generation knew only one president, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for 30 years with “iron and fire,” as they say in Arabic. He detained and tortured thousands who dared to speak against his rule. He committed massacres, the worst of which were in the city of Hama the same year I graduated from high school.

I still remember the fear. We dared not speak. We were told “walls have ears.” My family even prevented me from going to the mosque to pray. Many of my high school friends and relatives disappeared into the dark cells of the infamous Palmyra prison, the site of another infamous massacre by Assad’s ruthless security men. When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar, a classmate of mine from medical school, was appointed to the presidency by a token parliament. People expected change. After all, Syria had a well-educated middle class, a diverse economy, and a reasonably vibrant nonprofit sector. It also had a tradition of democracy, which had its ups and downs between 1920 and1970.

Bashar, inexperienced but equally ruthless, disappointed us all. When hundreds of thousands of young Syrians demonstrated peacefully in 2011, thinking naively that the Arab Spring had turned at last to Syria, Assad and his cronies responded with what they knew best: brutality and oppression. More than 250,000 people have been killed. Tens of thousands have disappeared into the prisons. Half of the population has been displaced. And barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and all kinds of weaponry have leveled entire cities and neighborhoods . Besides meager humanitarian assistance and empty rhetoric, the international community has stood by mostly idle, watching darkness descend on Syria. It is one of the worst humanitarian crises in our lifetime. In the ensuing chaos, extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Hezbollah filled the vacuum. But the snowballing refugee crisis only captured the world’s attention when it reached the shores of Europe and intensified the global refugee crisis.

With the drowning of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, who tried to flee with his family to Greece from Turkey across the Aegean Sea, suddenly Syrian lives mattered. I’ve just returned from my last medical mission with the Syrian American Medical Society to the Alzarak camp in Jordan. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live in the camp in the middle of the desert. They can’t leave Jordan even if they want to. The lucky ones are awaiting to be resettled in the US or other Western countries so they can start a new life and focus on the future of their children. The Syrian refugees I met were fleeing the recent Russian bombings and Assad’s barrel bombs, while others were fleeing the brutality of the Islamic State.

I treated Zainab and her two beautiful children who’d fled Manbej, a city controlled by ISIS, because she wanted to seek treatment for her two toddlers. She’d lost her husband. Both of her children had Asthma and stunted growth. I had tears in my eyes listening to her ordeal; fleeing her home in the middle in the night, walking through the Syrian desert for 5 days and finally ending up in a camp at the Syrian- Jordanian border for 8 months before she was let in to the Azrak camp. The Executive Order of Trump’s administration that shuts the door indefinitely in the faces of these desperate refugees is a cruel and unfair policy. Zainab and her two children deserve a better life, like our children. They are not a threat. Since 1975, Americans have welcomed over 3 million refugees from all over the world. Refugees have built new lives, homes, and communities in towns and cities in all 50 states.

Since the Syrian war began, however, only 18,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the entire United States compared to 61,000 resettled in Canada and more than 80,000 in Sweden. Both are much smaller countries than the US. This is a shameful number, considering there are 4.8 million Syrian refugees. Refugees are assets to our communities. They create jobs, launch new companies. Welcoming them, regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliation, is what America is all about. Nancy Nora’s father, surrounded by his large extended family at the dinner table on that Thanksgiving many years ago, explained how Irish Americans were demonized when they first arrived to the United States as refugees. Maligned by politicians and the public, they were perceived as a threat. During dark times in our history, the United States has treated newly arriving Jews, Germans, Japanese, and Latinos as a threat. As I was leaving Nora’s household that memorable evening, her family wished me good luck with my studies and my new life in America. Suddenly, the cold Chicago night felt very warm. I felt at home.

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