Canton orthodontist Omar Salem canceled his patients’ appointments on March 31, 2011. Something exciting was about to happen. Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, was delivering a speech to parliament — a speech that could be the first step toward democratic reforms in Salem’s home country.
His patients and their braces could wait a few hours.
Salem was hopeful that the 40-year-old regime would change. From the couch in his Canton home, he watched Assad on television with anticipation. But after a few minutes, his hope had turned to grief.
“Somehow in my naive thinking, I thought that Bashar Assad will do something good,” Salem said. “After the speech, I cried in my car on the way to work,’’ he said, frustrated that Assad “showed no respect.”
In his speech, Assad was dismissive of the protests across Syria against his regime, calling them conspiracies. The address was one of the first signs of what was to come: months of government suppression of protestors and activists that escalated into violence on both sides and is now deemed a civil war by some.
‘Somehow in my naive thinking, I thought that Bashar Assad will do something good. After the speech, I cried in my car on the way to work.’
That speech was the turning point for Salem. He had never been a very “political” person, he said, and he wasn’t against the Assad government. But now Salem actively opposes Assad, and, according to people he has worked with, he is a leader in the nonviolent fight against the regime.
Mohamad Al Bardan, a graduate student at Northeastern University, met Salem by chance at a rally last year in Copley Square. He had just emigrated from Damascus, and Salem helped him connect with the area’s Syrian community.
Salem and Al Bardan worked together on several events, including what Al Bardan called “awareness campaigns” at Northeastern and Boston University. Because he was an activist in Damascus before moving to Boston, Al Bardan said, he also knows of Salem’s help in providing people there with such tools as cameras and secure Internet connections.
“I admire him because he is a doctor; he is very busy,” he said of Salem. “It has been almost two years now and he has the same motivation and enthusiasm he had in the beginning.”
Salem said that when he was growing up in Syria, the ubiquitous portraits glorifying Hafez Assad — Bashar’s father and predecessor as the country’s president— that decorated streets and buildings were “like trees.” The corruption permeating the government was apparent, he said, but was something that faded into the background.
“I grew up hearing how bloody the regime could be, but I never saw it,” Salem said.
Salem and his wife, Zeina, moved to the United States in 2000 and to Canton in 2002.
Though he initially was not politically active in this country, Salem said, his mind was changed by the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters that began in March 2011.
“It’s one thing to steal and be corrupt; it’s another thing to be a killer,” he said.
Throughout the months of conflict, the Salems have grown accustomed to balancing the routine of everyday life with the struggle to help fellow Syrians.
On Halloween, their two sons, Hussein, 10, and Jad, 8, were bouncing around the house, eager for costumes and candy. Carved pumpkins decorated the steps of their home. Inside, the couple took turns holding their 5-month-old daughter, Maya, as they explained the roles they’ve taken on in the past year and a half to help activists in Syria and to be voices for them in the United States.
The Syrian community is spread out in Massachusetts, Salem explained, but the scattered Syrian-American families have been mostly united by the conflict in their home country.
“You always say, ‘How come nobody’s doing something about this?’ And then you realize you are that someone,” he said.
Salem’s daily routine goes like this: He wakes up around 7 a.m. and helps get his two sons off to Hansen Elementary School. He then goes to one of the offices in his practice, which has locations in Sharon, Norton, and West Bridgewater, and gets home around 5 p.m. in time for family dinner. Three or four nights each week, from about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., he works on his unofficial second job.
His Syria-related projects include talking to activists in Syria on private Facebook groups and Skype. He said the three activists he communicates with regularly are part of the “nonviolent wing” of the revolution. Salem helps provide them with Skype calling cards and satellite Internet devices to “expose what’s going on there to the media.”
“It’s amazing to talk to some of these guys and girls. They don’t understand the word fear,” Salem said. “They are the real heroes.”
The Salems have also been active in spreading awareness and raising funds in the Boston area. They’ve met with advisers for senators John Kerry and Scott Brown, to discuss humanitarian issues and their relatives’ experiences living in the embattled country. Kerry adviser Amy Kerrigan told the Globe she passed information from the meeting along to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
The Salems have worked with rebel-supportive organizations, including the Karam Foundation, Syrian Sunrise Foundation, and Syrian American Medical Society, to hold Boston-area events to raise funds and spread awareness. Last month, they offered their Canton town house for free to a Syrian family that had fled to the United States from Aleppo.
A Syrian activist in New Hampshire, who asked that her name not be published for safety reasons, has worked with Salem on several fund-raisers and rallies. She said Salem takes on many roles, from moderating events and giving speeches to organizing behind the scenes.
Some of the events Salem has helped organize are aimed at educating the rest of America about the Syrian revolutionary movement. But their efforts can only go so far.
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘So what’s happening in Syria?’ ” Zeina Salem said with an exasperated laugh. “They know something happened, but they don’t really know.”
“Sometimes people ask me ‘Are you Sunni or Alawi?’ or they ask if it’s about Saudi Arabia versus Iran,” Omar Salem said. “They are forgetting the people there, the Syrian people striving to live their lives.”
Those people include some of the couple’s closest relatives. Omar Salem’s parents, sisters, and grandparents are among his relatives still living in Syria, most in his hometown of Damascus.
Zeina’s hometown, Homs, has been dubbed “the capital of the revolution,” and has been under siege by the government’s army for more than a year. As a result, most of her family has fled to other countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. Her parents moved a few months ago and are now taking refuge in Dubai.
The Syrian government, backed by its army, state-run media, and some civilians, has been persistent in labeling rebels and opposition activists as “terrorists” with ties to enemy countries.
The United Nations has tried multiple times to broker a cease-fire between the army and the rebel fighters, and to help the country organize a new government, to no avail.
Last Friday, the UN reported that 11,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries to escape harsh living conditions and the fighting between rebels and government forces.
In a recent interview with a Russian TV channel, Assad showed he had no plans to cede power to a transitional government. “I am Syrian. I was made in Syria, I have to live in Syria and die in Syria,” he said.
While Assad digs in, Salem continues to toil on his night shift, working with Syrian activists through social media sites, and planning more events to aid the fight for democracy in his homeland.
“What we are doing may be a drop in the ocean,” he said, “but I know there are many drops.”