It was the summer of 2012, and Fouad Faris did not want to die. Syrian army tanks were rolling through the streets of Aleppo — his hometown — and a civil war was raging. Although he was not a member of a group opposed to President Bashar Assad of Syria, he believed that anyone could be arrested. A fate, he said, that meant certain death.
And then one day, as he prepared to board a bus, he was caught in the middle of a demonstration. A group of college students swarmed around him and began a protest against Assad. Within minutes, soldiers began to fire tear gas at the demonstrators. Gasping for breath, Faris began to run and didn’t look back.
Within days, he was in Amman, Jordan, applying for a US visa. It was approved a month later, and he hopped on a plane and headed to Shrewsbury to live with his uncle. His father, brother, and sisters were all on vacation in Alabama and decided it was unsafe to return to Syria.
Years earlier, Omar Salem and Mustafa Elbach also had dreams of living in a democratic society where people would not be arrested if they voiced their opinion about the government.
Salem has been an orthodontist in Canton for almost 20 years; Elbach arrived in the United States in 1979 and owns a grocery store in Revere. They are among about 5,000 native Syrians in Massachusetts who have watched anxiously while their homeland has been torn apart.
Faris was granted political asylum in July and is not technically considered a refugee — that status is given to those who are homeless and have been persecuted or fear persecution because of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion. But he is a man caught between two worlds: a new life as a college student at Worcester State University and his identity as a Syrian national who still dreams that a democracy can emerge from the chaos that has enveloped his old country. The United Nations has estimated that more than 220,000 people have died in Syria during the four-year civil war.
These days, Faris spends much of his time scouring the Internet for the latest news about the estimated 4 million who have been displaced from their homes. Recently, President Obama announced plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.
“I could have been one of them,” said Faris, now 21. “They’re walking toward their future; they’re walking away from something bad. If you’re making that walk, you have no other choice. If you stay, you’ll be dead sooner or later.”
Until 2011, when the opposition began to push for democracy against Assad, Syrians living in Massachusetts mostly focused on their lives in the United States.
“It’s a very close community, and it was not before the revolution,” said Salem, who grew up in Damascus and came to the United States in 1996. “After 2011, when it started, a lot of Syrians started looking for others.”
Like many others, Salem spends his days worrying about relatives who are unable to leave his homeland. Salem’s parents now live with him and his family in Sharon; his wife’s parents became homeless two years ago after a rocket destroyed their home in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. He also has two sisters who still live in Damascus and suffer through bombardments and a lack of water and electricity.
“We’ve lost multiple family members, cousins mostly,” Salem said. “Some were detained and tortured to death in regime prisons and others [died] due to Syrian Air Force aerial bombing.”
As his family and friends were trapped between Assad’s forces and several opposition groups, Salem felt the need to do something. As chairman of the nonprofit Karam Foundation, he’s helped raise $5 million that has been sent to refugees living in makeshift camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey.
Salem has made four trips to the region in the last two years, bringing along dentists and doctors to treat children and teachers in schools set up for Syrian children who have become refugees.
He’s also helped bring local Syrians together and now has an e-mail list that goes to more than 500 Syrian families in the state. His fledgling organization, the Syrian Americans of New England, advocates for refugees. Last month, hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil in Copley Square. Salem told the crowd that the United States needed to take in 100,000 Syrian refugees, far greater than Obama’s plan to accept 10,000.
“I think we need a task force to be established at the state level for the refugees, and we need to engage the communities way ahead of any refugees arriving,” Salem said. “We need to make sure that the communities are comfortable and welcoming because if they’re not, then we are going to really mess it up.”
For the last three years, Salem has helped Iman Mkanssi and her husband, Adel Summakiah. The couple and their three children arrived in Boston on a visa — penniless and fleeing the war — in 2012. Salem invited the family to stay at a condo he owns in Canton. The family was granted political asylum, and these days, Iman teaches at an Islamic school and Adel works at Target.
Like other Syrians, they talk to their relatives through Internet computer apps, but the video is grainy and the connection is often spotty. Iman said she’s been welcomed with open arms by the Canton and Sharon communities.
“At first I felt afraid and scared and I didn’t know what was ahead of me, but then I saw how helpful people — Muslims and non-Muslims — could be,” she said.
In his Middle Eastern grocery store in Revere, Elbach spends his days reading Syrian websites and also watches satellite news stations to learn about any new developments in his native country. Snipers and shelling forced his sister to moved to his brother’s home in Aleppo, and Elbach — who last visited there in 2009 — also has a home in the city but has no idea if it is occupied or in ruins. He sends charity directly to orphans and widows in Syria and said he is overwhelmed by the thought of millions of refugees.
Still, Elbach doesn’t believe that resettling refugees in Europe and the United States is ideal for Syria’s future. “The best thing is to settle the problem, not to bring the refugees here,” he said. “If you keep them around Syria, there’s more hope for them to go back. If you bring them here, some of them won’t go back.”
In Swampscott, Sam Khatib, a consumer safety officer for the US Food and Drug Administration, tries to speak with his mother, sister, and two brothers almost every day in their Damascus homes. “It’s difficult to watch this,” he said. “It’s like seeing the country dying. The place I grew up will never be the same again.”
Khatib and his wife, Keli, said they would volunteer to host a refugee family. “These refugees have not been poverty-stricken all of their lives,” he said. “They had homes and lives and lost everything overnight.”