When the Obama administration announced Thursday that it would provide arms to rebel forces in Syria, psychiatrist Amjad Bahnassi was treating a patient in his Worcester office. It was not until his wife later called him at work that he learned of the decision.
“She told me there was good news,” said Bahnassi, 53, who has two sisters, a brother, and several uncles and aunts in Syria. “We were excited, just elated, because we’ve been in pain. The rest of my patients after that kept asking why I was in such a good mood.”
In a White House statement released Thursday, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, confirmed that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons over the past year against opposition forces, killing up to 150 people.
The use of chemical weapons is a “red line” for the Obama administration, he said, and White House officials said they were ready to supply the rebels with small arms and ammunition.
Reaction by New England Syrian-Americans was mixed. While most, like Bahnassi, welcomed the news of foreign aid, he and others said they felt the United States had moved too late.
At least 93,000 people have died in the fighting in Syria since March 2011, and Syrian expatriates said they have family in the homeland who have no food, jobs, or a way out.
“We’re disappointed President Obama didn’t offer help sooner,” said Mazen Duwaji, 60, a Syrian-American doctor in Norwood. “Maybe if he had, the death toll now would be a lot lower and the conflict over. It’s terrible because most of the dead are civilians, and many are women and children.”
Duwaji said many of his relatives in Syria had fled the country, including his brother, who escaped to Dubai about nine months ago, and his sister, who moved to the United States.
The UN estimates that the Syrian conflict has created more than 1 million refugees, many in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
Bahnassi said his two sisters tried to flee to Dubai about two months ago, but it was too expensive for them to extend their visas and so they were forced to return.
Although phone lines are monitored heavily in Damascus, where his sisters and brother live, Bahnassi said he can hear in their voices fear and desperation for freedom.
Lina Abdul, 40, said she calls her family in Syria every day. “I’m nervous for them,” she said, “and for all the country’s innocent victims.”
A 46-year-old cab driver in Medford, who returned from Syria in 2012 after living there for seven years, said he hopes US aid will help end the fighting. But, he said, the rebels needed help sooner. He declined to give his name for fear of retaliation from the Assad regime.
“Things were unbelievable, and the situation only got worse after I left,” he said.
He said his parents and brother have also moved to the United States, although his parents constantly tell him they miss “the old country.” But he cannot let them go back. He does not want to worry about them, he said.