California family fears for loved ones in Syria

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Feras works as a marketing consultant in Northern California. His wife is a teacher. His three children have gone off to college, leaving him fretting about tuition. But beyond his everyday life, Feras has much more to worry about -- his father, sisters and in-laws who remain in Syria.

Most of his family is in Homs, which has been a flash point for the violence that has wracked Syria for nearly a year. Opposition activists say dozens of people were killed there last weekend in a sweeping bombardment carried out by the military. The government has denied the charges, saying terrorists are responsible for the attacks, not the regime. The media has too little access to check their accounts.

Feras talked to the Times on Monday about what he hears from his family in Homs. To protect his family, The Times is using only his first name.

How do you communicate with your family? How often do you hear from them?


We call them almost every day. Sometimes we get through, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes they shut down the phone service so you can’t get through at all. The younger crowd are on Facebook.

What are you hearing from your family?

They can’t really talk. They can’t say, ‘There’s a tank outside.” So they call it an animal or something. So what I could guess from talking to my sister -- she said there was ‘lighting and thunder.’ She can’t say ‘bullet’ or ‘tank.’ They’re that afraid that people are eavesdropping, that the government is listening to what she’s saying.

She has been at home for 39 days. She hasn’t left. She’s 59 and she’s not into protesting, but she couldn’t leave because of all the violence. Her daughter is 24. She has a mental condition. She gets really afraid. She used to take her every day to walk around and take her to a park. Now they can’t.

How does she survive without leaving her house for so long?

Fortunately, money is not an issue for her. She can pay people to bring her things. For example, it’s winter in Homs and it’s cold. They don’t have central heat like we do here. So they’d need diesel. She would pay people, would hire a taxi driver to go and get what she needed. The stories we hear from others who can’t afford this -- it’s really bad for them.

Your father-in-law was shot by a sniper. What happened?

This was recently, maybe a couple weeks ago. He was driving back home from his office -- he’s a 73-year-old lawyer in Homs. He was coming back home and a sniper at a government security forces building shot at him from above -- it went through the windshield. The bullet went right below his jaw, in the fleshy area there. Luckily it didn’t go through anything major.

He knocked on some random door to help him go to the hospital. The hospital wouldn’t treat him. They said, ‘This is a bullet and this is a liability if we treat you.’ They ended up calling his daughter who came -- it was like a war zone -- and she convinced somebody, I think with the Red Crescent, to take him to a private hospital where they would actually agree to treat him.

They shared this with us, some of it on Facebook. But they can’t complain. They just say, ‘Yeah, this is what happened, thank God we’re OK.” Even when they’re shot at, they can’t really express it. I joked with him, “Are you going to sue these people who shot you?”

If somebody is protesting and they get shot at, that’s one thing. But he’s 73 years old, coming home from his office. I don’t understand how people do that.

Some of your family members have green cards. [Feras’ father and his sister are both legal U.S. residents.] What would it take to bring them here?

The problem is that leaving Homs is dangerous. Just leaving your house is problematic; these thugs come and take over the house. My sister is afraid because her house is the only thing she has. Going to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus from Homs is like a couple hours’ drive, like Sacramento to San Jose.

It just wasn’t that feasible. My wife was talking to her brother in Dubai last night and we’re trying to see, is it easier for them to go to Dubai? But my mother-in-law is still saying, “Well if I leave, someone might take my house and destroy what’s in it.”

Especially in the last four or five days, the violence has increased. Just leaving the house might be very unsafe whereas a month ago, the problem was more about paperwork. We’re still trying.

How does the closure of the U.S. Embassy affect that?

I don’t know, to tell you the truth. It was just announced [Monday] morning. I think we have to go to the embassy of Poland or something. [The Polish Embassy is now representing U.S. interests in Syria.]

Having grown up in Syria, has it been surprising to see this happen to the country?

If you go back a year ago before the Arab Spring, I didn’t think anybody had the courage to go on the streets and say, “We want democracy.” We thought there was no way in our lifetime that this would happen. When it happened we saw they chose this violent way to crush the revolution. I knew it was in them [the government] -- but I didn’t think it would happen again.

I lost family members in the ‘80s in the Hama massacre. [Human-rights activists say Syrian forces in February 1982 killed more than 10,000 people and flattened much of the old city in a reprisal against Islamic activists who rose up against former President Hafez Assad.] Every family was impacted. I had a cousin who was put in prison for 12 years. My wife’s twin sister, her husband was put in prison for nine years. I had a cousin who got killed, he was a newlywed in Hama.

This is how the regime handled things back then. It was all hush-hush. There was no social media. Now the world is hearing it.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles