The last time Osama Khatib spoke to his elderly parents in Syria, he could hear thunderous explosions in the background.
“You heard that?” the 48-year-old Swampscott resident asked his parents during a conversation two days ago. His parents fell silent. For two years, the bombs have rattled their apartment and blown out their windows in Damascus, the capital. Finally, they told him they heard the bombs, but could not tell if they were far away or close.
“It’s nerve racking,” he said. “It’s a terrible situation.”
The uncertainly in Syria intensified Wednesday as the Khatib family and thousands of other immigrants braced for the possibility of an international crackdown on the regime of President Bashar Assad following reports of a deadly chemical weapons attack last week in a suburb of the capital. Some worry that the intervention would harm civilians, but others say the mounting death toll shows the foreign nations have already waited too long to act.
“There is no good solution, unfortunately,” said Khatib, a consumer safety officer for the federal Food and Drug Administration.
In another sign of the intensifying concern in America, Syrians are applying for asylum at much higher rates. Nationwide, 1,035 Syrians have applied for asylum this fiscal year, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, compared with just 19 applications in 2009, two years before the conflict began.
Immigrants in Worcester, Canton, and elsewhere said they feel helpless thousands of miles away as relatives share stories of torture, kidnappings, and bombings back home, in addition to chronic power outages and hyperinflation leading to long lines for milk and bread. But in the United States, immigrants are holding protests and speaking to the news media in hope of stanching bloodshed.
On Wednesday, a Worcester man said his niece’s father-in-law and husband were kidnapped a year ago, tortured, and later released. Now they are sharing an apartment with 30 others because a rocket destroyed their home.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his family is still in Syria, said he believes that the United States and other nations must step in to halt the violence.
“This regime is like a cancer. It will not go away by itself. You have to surgically take it out,” he said, calling it “a moral responsibility of the world.”
Ghyath Alkhalil, a 35-year-old dentist who lives in Milton and is a Christian, said he believes foreign nations should block Assad before the damage spreads even further.
“Every day you hear that somebody is killed, somebody is getting slaughtered,” he said. “Life is unbearable there now.”
Not everyone agrees that Assad should be forced out. Christians and Alawites, religious minorities in the mostly Sunni Muslim nation of 22 million, fear repercussions if Muslim extremists gain ground, some immigrants said. The Assad regime is mostly backed by Alawites, an Islamic sect to which Assad’s family belongs.
Omar Salem, an orthodontist in Canton, said he hopes the United States and other nations could attack Syria’s air force to stop the bombings. But he worried that a massive assault on the densely populated capital could kill many civilians, including his relatives.
“Hopefully, they will be safe, but you never know 100 percent,” said Salem, 39. “I don’t know how bad it’s going to be.”
Alkhalil, the dentist from Milton, said his mother and brother fled to Jordan over the past year, after two of his brother’s colleagues were killed in alleged sniper attacks. This week he persuaded his sister, who was injured in a bombing, to leave as well.
After the chemical attack last week, he nearly panicked when she did not respond to a text he sent. Two hours later, she said she had been bathing her children. “You’re alive,” he recalled thinking. “Thank God you’re alive.”
The next day, he stood in Faneuil Hall and took the oath of US citizenship and swore to defend the United States. On Wednesday, he battled mixed feelings as the United States and others mulled the possibility of attacking his native land.
“I don’t want anybody to get hurt in Syria,” he said, “but something has to be done.”