Mark Curnutte reports:
One morning within the past month, as he prepared for work as a senior scientist at Procter & Gamble, Ashraf Traboulsi learned that his brother-in-law had been injured in a bombing in Syria.
“What is difficult for me and many of us is living daily life with this in the back of our minds,” Traboulsi said of the 2½-year Syrian uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. “You still have to go to meetings. Life goes on. It’s a constant struggle.”
For Traboulsi and the estimated 600 people in the local Syrian-American community, the bloody revolution that began in their homeland in March 2011 has been a source of anguish – even division – between those supporting Assad and those against him.
Yet for Syrian-Americans seeking a new government in Syria and peace for its 23 million people, violence in their homeland – including recent chemical weapons attacks by government troops against rebels and civilians – has united them in a cause and drawn them into the larger community, where they say they’ve been heartened by genuine concern and expressions of support.
“Some people don’t want to know what is going on,” said Traboulsi, 47, a married father of two sons who lives in West Chester Township. He left Syria in 1990 – becoming a U.S. citizen in 1995 – but left behind a sister and four nieces. “But other people, non-Muslims and non-Syrians, want to understand what is happening.”
To combat frustration and helplessness, as anti-government tensions arose throughout the Middle East and became known as the Arab Spring, local Syrian-Americans formed the Syrian American Foundation three years ago.
Traboulsi, its president, said the organization is into its third drive to collect relief supplies – winter clothing, shoes, toys and school supplies – to send via 40-foot sea container to Turkey. There, a nongovernmental organization takes the supplies to the estimated 6 million displaced Syrians who remain in the country. Another 2 million Syrian refugees are in camps in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
“We are doing what we can do,” said Dr. Mohammad Sheatt, 39, a foundation co-founder, director of TriHealth’s Pulmonary Hypertension Program and U.S. citizen for a year.
The foundation raised $184,000 at an April dinner to keep Syria’s only acute-care hospital open for two months.
Closer to home, in the Mason neighborhood where Sheatt lives with his wife and two young daughters, people who know of Sheatt’s Syrian roots have donated clothing, toys and school supplies to the foundation. Its Mason warehouse is filled with packed boxes.
Sheatt’s parents, now 69 and 59, and his 21-year-old sister still live in his boyhood home in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, site of a heated battle between rebels and government troops for the past year. They are safe, though electricity and running water have been cut off and heating oil is in short supply.
Still, tragedy struck his family. Within the past month, as she walked from her in-laws’ house back to her own home in another part of Aleppo, his cousin was killed by a sniper.
Deaths in the bloody conflict now exceed 100,000, says the United Nations, a count that includes 5,800 children. The U.S. State Department claims 1,429 civilians died in a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs last week; Wednesday, a Senate subcommittee passed a resolution to allow air strikes against Assad.
For some local Syrian-Americans, including Traboulsi, Sheatt and Basma Rabbat Akbik, U.S. military intervention is coming too late. Many say the United States should have armed rebel fighters. Still others won’t speak out publicly because they fear government retribution against relatives in Syria.
“It is a fine edge I am walking on,” said Rabbat, 44, born in Damascus in 1969 and living now in Symmes Township with her husband and children. They have relatives in and around Damascus.
“We need to do something. My fear is a lot of civilians are going to be killed,” she said. “I am hoping our military know where to strike. We are praying and weeping, going minute by minute.”
Nights are filled with anxious hours on social media and communicating via email and on Skype with relatives in Syria.
“I don’t go to bed before 1 in the morning anymore,” Traboulsi said.
Rabbat’s husband, Hunam Akbik, a physician and chief of the Pain Medicine Division at Mercy Health, leads medical missions at least once every two months to Syrian refugee camps in the region. Traboulsi’s wife, Khaula Sawah, travels regularly to Turkey as medical relief officer at a clinic treating Syrian refugees.
Basma Rabbat Akbik, a U.S. citizen for four years, says she wants people in her homeland to experience the same freedom, dignity and right to self-determination that Americans take for granted.
“I cried when the judge made me a citizen of my new country,” she said. “I cry when I hear our national anthem. I am proud and jealous. I am proud as an American, and I am jealous for my people in Syria who don’t know that feeling”
People in the local Muslim and medical communities who came to know a 9-year-old Syrian girl, Rawan Mubarak, also have experienced some sleepless nights in the past week.
Rawan, who received a prosthetic arm, went back to the Middle East in late August. She flew to Beirut, Lebanon, where her father and uncle picked her up. She has returned to her hometown of Damascus.
Rawan, who had lost her right arm in a 2012 shell attack near her home, became the face of the violent Syrian conflict for those in Greater Cincinnati who came in contact with her.
The nonprofit Palestine Children’s Relief Fund sponsored her trip. Rawan stayed with a host family in West Chester. She received care at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and from specialists at JF Rowley Prosthetic and Orthotic Laboratory, Corryville. She adapted well to her new arm after a short time in rehabilitation.
The Enquirer featured Rawan in a June 10 story.
“We were the lucky ones to have met such a strong and brave young girl who always wore a smile on her face,” said Deema Maghathe, president of the Cincinnati relief fund chapter.
“Rawan was loved and embraced by all those who met and cared for her, so it was especially hard to see her go. We were very concerned about Rawan’s safety given the escalating conflict in Syria, but ultimately it is the family’s decision to have her back.
“All we can do is hope for the best, not only for Rawan, but for all of the children suffering in Syria.”
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