'Zaki Lababidi remembers when the Syrian community in Arizona was a close-knit group, holding social events and fundraisers to help people back home.
But now, he says, the community is feeling the chilling effects of the conflict in their native land thousands of miles away.
“You are 10,000 miles away, and you are afraid to go to an event that maybe somebody will tell the régime about,” said Lababidi, president of the Syrian American Council. “And then you and your family will be in trouble.”
Lababidi lives in Scottsdale now – an American citizen and cardiologist. He said his relatives have fled Syria as refugees, but that many Arizona Syrians still have loved ones in their home country where an insurgency has been waged against the régime of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.
“Their wives want to go back to Syria and visit their families there,” Lababidi said. “And they have to stop anything that could be perceived that is an act against the butcher régime in Damascus.”
When it comes to criticizing the Assad administration, he said, distance does not matter.
“If they cannot get to you, then they take your relatives,” Lababidi said. “Either you have to go and give up yourself to them to release your relatives – and, sometimes, they don’t – or they kill your relatives, and you live the rest of your life with the guilt of the responsibility.”
Tucson resident Rania – a Syrian refugee – asked that her last name not be used because she shares those concerns about the safety of herself and her relatives in Syria.
“They have a wanted list,” Rania said. “My name’s not mentioned anywhere, but it’s still scary. You go there – you have no guarantee of coming back.”
She first came to the United States as a student from Damascus, the Syrian capital, and opted to stay here with her husband.
In Syria, “you cannot be free in your country,” Rania said. “So, we decided this is the place where we want to be.”
Lababidi said he grew up in the Syrian city of Homs during the 29-year rule of Assad’s father, President Hafez al-Assad. He decided to leave after his car was sprayed with gunfire by a passing régime ambulance, whose “driver thought that I slowed him down somehow.”
Still, he returned every year until 2010, when he encountered a political atmosphere that is reminiscent of the government under Hafez al-Assad.
“It was back to the father days where you cannot say a word, you cannot speak,” he said of his 2010 trip. “His (Bashar) picture’s all over the place – the usual dictatorship mentality, propaganda that we’re used to in Cuba, Russia.”
Rania also reluctantly stopped her visits to Syria about a decade ago. While she supports the ongoing “revolution,” she and her spouse both fear repercussions if they return.
Even so, Rania said Syrians in Tucson are split in their loyalty to Assad.
That same rift can be seen in Syria as well, said Hardin Lang, vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International. In a phone call from northern Iraq, he said certain areas of Syria still strongly support the government, while others have “very little love lost with the régime at Damascus.”
Hardin said it’s important to remember that many Syrians “have lived under barrel-bombing and sort of the brutal tactics the Assad régime have utilized in order to regain this control.”
For Lababidi, recent events only build upon decades of struggle that long preceded the start of the Syrian Civil War.
“This is the régime that we Syrians dealt with since 1970,” he said. “This did not start in 2011. And it was equally brutal to all.” '