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Syrian-American Family Awaits Word From Relatives

posted on: Feb 17, 2012

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Ghaidaa Mousabacha awakens before the sun, leans across her bed and grabs a cellphone that is always on. Then she makes the call to Syria, where it’s nightfall.

“I ask about Mother, about my three sisters,” she said one afternoon this week at her condominium in San Jose. “Are they OK? Do they have enough to eat? I have uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces. Are they OK?”

They are trying to stay alive 7,400 miles away in Homs, Mousabacha’s hometown. Every day has been the same for her since the Syrian army surrounded the rebellious city almost two months ago and started killing people. She calls every morning and again at midnight, goes to bed relieved that her loved ones are still alive, but wakes the next morning fearing the worst all over again.

“When I talk with them, I wind down a little bit,” she said. “But I’m getting less and less sleep. I want to wake up peacefully again, knowing no people had died the night before, that the rockets and shooting stopped and that the tanks have been pulled away.”

Since Wednesday, an estimated 400 people have been killed in Homs in the bloodiest episode of the uprising against the dictatorship of President Bashar Assad. So far Mousabacha’s family has escaped death, but just barely.

Shortly after the siege began, a sniper took aim at her father, Abdulrahim, an insurance company lawyer. He was simply driving to his home in Al-Inshaat, an affluent neighborhood next to Baba Amr, a rebel
stronghold.

“What the regime is trying to do, in every possible way, is to scare people into not going out to the streets and protesting,” Mousabacha said. “The snipers shoot at anyone.”

Luckily, the bullet hit his car first, slowed down, and lodged itself in his chin, allowing him to drive to safety. The Red Crescent drove him to a hospital in Damascus, where he remains.

“I feel like a refugee in my own country,” he told his daughter.

A woman from Homs

Mousabacha was born the same year as the Six Day War, when Syria and other Arab nations suffered a humiliating defeat by Israel that enabled the region’s dictators to tighten their grip on their own people.

Wearing hip, rectangular eyeglasses and no makeup under a cheerful blue and white hijab, Mousabacha looks and sounds more like a young college graduate than a seasoned English teacher in a school struggling to improve test scores. Her favorite writer is Charles Dickens, who knew something about the human struggle.

That Homs, a city of 700,000, became a center of the Arab Spring came as a surprise to Mousabacha. It has the reputation, she said, of being a laid-back, mellow enclave of politically naive country bumpkins.

“Everybody in Syria loves to make fun of us,” she said, but the city takes it in stride.

“I had a happy childhood,” she said. “We visited relatives all summer. I was one of my grandmother’s spoiled grandchildren.”

But the government summer camps where she and her sisters marched innocently to military music and the presidential speeches they had to memorize were something else. These were the speeches of the late Hafez Assad, Bashar’s father, who in 1982 ordered the massacre of 25,000 people in Hama to quash a Sunni uprising. Mousabacha was still in grade school.

“Ever since we were young we all knew persecution would be the price for speaking out,” she said.

Years later, a brother-in-law from Hama was imprisoned for nine years. Two of his brothers disappeared, never to be seen again.

So when a young Syrian electrical engineering student from the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma sent word to his family in Syria that he was looking for a wife, Mousabacha’s parents decided it would be a good match for their daughter.

After a short courtship, Mousabacha and Feras Alhlou married in the United States in 1987.

Revolt from afar

They have two daughters and one son, Abdullah, who is 23 and lives with his parents in north San Jose. He and his Arab-American buddies frequently talk about joining the revolution, which strikes fear into their parents.

“Yeah, I would go,” he said, grinning, “but I also know that I’m my mother’s only son.”

Mousabacha shot back with a stern smile, “He knows how much I am attached to him. Besides, we can help the revolt in different ways.”

The family helps send humanitarian aid to Syria, get information to local Arabs and organize rallies and letter-writing drives in support of the Arab Spring. They know how to reach out. As active members of Muslim and Syrian-American groups in the Bay Area, the couple are involved in Silicon Valley’s progressive, interfaith community. They’ve spoken at Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, built houses for Habitat for Humanity and volunteered at food kitchens.

But all the turmoil on top of a strenuous teaching job is taking a toll on Mousabacha. Her husband advises her to keep busy. She tries.

“I can’t keep them off my mind,” she said about her relatives back home. “What if a rocket hits where my sister lives? The rockets never stop.” Mousabacha has saved a link on her cellphone to an especially disturbing video. The narrator, speaking in Arabic, recorded the rampage of one or more tanks through her old neighborhood. Every car on a street she knew well had been crushed.

“As you see, when I come home, this is what I do,” she said, holding up the phone. “This is my main source of information.” A devout Sunni, she wishes for a secular democracy for Syria’s many faiths and ethnic groups. But that ideal seems far away right now. She needs to charge up her phone. There’s a call to make tonight and another one in the morning, and the next day and night after that, until the madness stops at the gates of her hometown.