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Activist shares Syria’s agony at forum

Homs man speaks to Harvard group

bill greene/globe staff

Syrian activist Danny Abdul Dayem greeted his mother, Helen, at Logan Airport. He says documenters risk being killed on sight.

CAMBRIDGE - Danny Abdul Dayem once dreamed of attending school in America. After several semesters of less-than-serious study at a Syrian university, he told his mother he wanted to earn his MBA at Harvard.

That dream is on hold.

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Dayem’s life was turned upside-down when unrest began in Syria a year ago. His home city of Homs was suddenly a center of the protests that spread through the country and prompted a harsh crackdown by the Syrian government. Dayem, 23, would later become known as “the Voice of Homs’’ for his shocking amateur videos, posted online, that documented the violent conflict in his city.

On Sunday, Dayem made it to Harvard, but not under the circumstances he once imagined. Instead, he sat at a table in the front of the room, the center of attention at a forum sponsored by the Harvard Islamic Society.

It is not a role he relishes. Dayem, who sneaked out of Syria several weeks ago, sat stone-faced as he listened to a speaker detail an optimistic vision of the future of the country. He flinched and shook his head when the moderator introduced him as a hero.

“I’m not a hero. My friends who died are heroes,’’ he told the forum.

Dayem’s videos, smuggled out of Homs through intermediaries and posted on YouTube, show shells landing on homes, and children in bloodstained clothes lying in a makeshift hospital.

‘We were under rockets, but we were free. I would rather live under missiles, free, than peacefully but without freedom.’

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“We’re not animals, we’re human beings,’’ Dayem implores in one video. “They’re going to kill us all. Please, someone help us.’’

But in an interview, he described his last month in Homs as “the best month of my life.’’

“We were under rockets, but we were free,’’ he said. “I would rather live under missiles, free, than peacefully but without freedom.’’

The world has relied on citizen-journalists like Dayem to get news through what amounts to an information blockade by the Syrian government.

Even a bullet wound failed to stop Dayem.

In August, he was shot in the abdomen by an assailant in a passing car. A friend fell on Dayem, taking three more bullets, and barely survived.

Dayem, who was born in the United Kingdom to an English mother and Syrian father before moving to Syria at age 3, decided it was time to get out. The family told authorities at the airport that Dayem’s wound was from kidney surgery. He showed his British passport and left unhindered.

But after receiving treatment for his wound, Dayem sneaked back into Syria later last year - he declined to specify when - and continued to film the videos for which he is known.

The decision to return was agonizing for his mother, Helen Dayem, who came to Harvard with her son Sunday. But, she said, she had no choice but to support her son.

“You either send them with your blessing or they leave angry, so he goes with my blessing,’’ she said.

She described watching a news report last month that showed piles of bodies in a Syrian street. She and Dayem’s father scoured the image for any sign of their son, she said.

Dayem drew attention to others, many of them teens, who are documenting atrocities in Syria.

“The people with cameras are risking their lives,’’ he said. “If [government forces] catch you, they’ll kill you on sight.’’

Dayem has implored the international community, the United States in particular, to provide weapons to the Syrian opposition. He says that Syrians in Homs would prefer weapons to food, because they believe their suffering cannot end until the government of President Bashar Assad has fallen.

Dayem said he has made his pitch for intervention to members of Congress, but declined to say to whom or how they received his plea.

“The American people own the government. The government doesn’t own the people,’’ he said. “If you have a human side in your heart, you should move your government to intervene.’’

Dayem plans to return to Syria soon. Friends will help smuggle him into the country, he said. Resistance members there have a slogan, Dayem said, that loosely translates to “death before dishonor.’’

For him, that means a short stay in the United States.

“We didn’t start this so we could run away,’’ he said.

On a walk through Harvard Yard, Dayem said he would still like to come as a student someday.

But he said he finds it hard to enjoy life away from the war zone.

“Every single thing I eat, I feel bad about it,’’ he said.

“Just me walking here now with no bullets flying around, I feel bad about that, because I know how they’re living down there.’’

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com.
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