Connecticut #Syrian Americans
urging help for their homeland
By Joe Amarante, Register Staff
NEW HAVEN — Businessman Adib Chouiki takes out a cellphone in his friend’s restaurant on Crown Street to make a point about a people in dire straits. He calls up YouTube footage of a youth running down a Syrian street with a backpack, who is felled by a bullet from a sniper.
The horror of government security forces using tanks, gunfire and other repressive measures to stifle protests and rebels is instantly summoned but quickly overlooked in America’s election season.
CNN was covering the conflict closely until recently, Chouiki said, “but unfortunately, with the election year and all the coverage of the election, it’s like this tragedy has been forgotten.”
Just days ago, Chouiki’s own nephew was killed by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the dictator trying to retain power.
“My nephew was in the Syrian army and he refused to use his weapon against his own people,” Chouiki said. “They came and they shot him dead in his own house. … And they burned the house. A neighbor had to bury him, and they did not have enough places in the cemetery. They had to bury him right next to his house. And he was 19 years old.”
Chouiki, a West Haven resident and owner of gas stations in Waterbury and Willimantic, is a member of the Swasia Foundation, a small group of Syrian-American small-business owners (operating restaurants, gas stations and convenience stores) in Connecticut and New Jersey.
His friend Patrick Kearn of Manchester, an electrician who has done work for the Syrian-American businessmen, calls those in Swasia “actual heroes. They have a network of volunteers risking their lives with every shipment, smuggling aid into Syrian army-occupied regions.”
The protests began in 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring in the likes of Egypt and Libya, and by an incident involving a handful of young teens who had written anti-Assad graffiti in Daraa near the Jordanian border.
A tribal head sought the release of the jailed youths, leading to a demonstration in which 26 people were massacred.
“From then on, it’s … one city after another,” said Chouiki, “and in each and every one of them, they were faced with live bullets.
Security forces have used tanks, gunfire and mass arrests to try to crush anti-government protests — trapping women and children in the process.
People of Syrian descent here are tuned in, via news reports, social media and the Internet. Mahmoud Khattab, the chairman of the Syrian American Council, the largest Syrian organization in the United States, told Globalpost.com that, “The Syrian-American community follows what is happening, not day by day, but hour by hour, or minute by minute.”
Kearn and Chouiki said Swasia Foundation members have met with U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, I-Conn., who has expressed full support for the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army, and yet little has been accomplished in terms of food and medical aid from the United States.
But Swasia is getting some food and medical supplies to those under siege in Syria, where sympathetic locals face the threat of swift assassination. Chouiki claims the regime has killed thousand of doctors, and that a hospital just south of Damascus was bombed by the military.
Chouiki has been sounding the alert in the area since February, when he helped stage a rally on the New Haven Green that drew 150 people. A fund-raiser was held at the CoCo Key Water Resort in Waterbury.
Since then, with the conflict worsening, Chouiki and friends (particularly a doctor in Clifton, N.J.) started Swasia, placing collection boxes in area businesses, as Assad’s forces demolished thousands of homes and burned businesses en masse in places like Aleppo.
“We decided we should really do something. … It (the situation) is getting to be way too much,” he said.
But the Syrian government isn’t allowing relief organizations to operate there, Chouiki said. The Red Cross, for instance, isn’t allowed in Homs, the ancient city where in 1981 Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father, ordered a massacre of Sunni Muslims after an uprising.
Meanwhile, the conflict has spread to border skirmishes with Turkey and a passenger plane was forced to land in Turkey because of concerns it was delivering arms to the regime from Moscow.
Swasia said donations are used to make arrangements, through international companies in Syria, to buy food in Damascus for locals. Food is collected at three rented warehouses there. But medical supplies, such as HemCon, QuikClot and blood bags, are needed literally to stop the bleeding.
“It’s very well-known,” said Chouiki, “that American people are the most generous people in the world. … On the local level, here in New Haven area and Fairfield County, we’re looking to get some help from people by talking to their senators, by putting some kind of pressure on the administration. … We need action.”
Chouiki estimates there are 10,000 to 20,000 people of Syrian descent in Connecticut. He describes them as “a loving people. We never had any animosity against American people.”
One of the first Syrians to arrive in New Haven, in the late 1940s, was the family that runs Mamoun’s restaurant, Chouiki said.
“We’re living the American dream, pretty much,” he said. Several of his Syrian friends live in West Haven and worship at the mosque on Pruden Street.
Kearn, who is not Syrian, said he had no idea what his Syrian friends were going through until about a month ago. “The owner here (at Aladdin Crown Pizza) lost his brother; when I found that out and saw some of the photographs, it really touched my heart, you know. I’m a Christian; I could do something.”
He said he has told his own church members, after assurances from Swasia members that the charity had been vetted by Homeland Security, that any donations will be humanitarian and not going to arms.
Which brings up a complicating factor in a complicated region.
While many of the Syrian-Americans against Assad are Muslim (although Sunni, a different sect than Assad’s), Syrian Christians fear an even worse environment spurred by jihadists and Islamists getting involved In Syria — although most Christians have no love for Assad either.
A Syrian-American Christian, Aisa Haddad of Trumbull, said, “We are not with Assad, but we are with ‘the state,’ not to have chaos.” He said he is against sending arms to the opposition and thinks Assad would use that excuse to kill more people.
Syrian Christians fear it will be a repeat of Iraq, where a long campaign and a dictator’s removal left 25 percent of Christians dead and others in exile. “We are really afraid of that”.
Haddad, also a businessman, said, “It is always a good idea to get aid to children,” and his fellow Connecticut Syrians “are really nice guys, but they have to make sure that aid goes to the right people.”
Then there’s concern about Iranian influence over the likes of Hezbollah, Iraq and Syria.
Swasia’s mission may be humanitarian, but Chouiki is moved to talk of something stronger when he thinks about his slain nephew and embattled homeland, where he still owns a house.
“I think any government, all over the world, should have the moral authority to stop this dictator from killing his own people. It’s not time for politics now; it’s not time for statesmen,” he said.