Afra Jalabi is on Syria’s wanted list. With her warm smile and a smattering of blond highlights, the Dalai Lama-loving 41-year-old looks more like a soccer mom than an outlaw.
Yet after the mother of two boys joined a Damascus democracy group three years ago, the Syrian government listed her as a threat to security. As a result, the Montrealer is no longer allowed back into her native country, not even to visit her family.
“It makes me feel proud,” said Jalabi of her wanted status, despite often longing to return to Syria. “It’s ridiculous. I’m a graduate student, I’m a journalist, I grew up in a pacifist family on the values of democracy and pluralism. So if someone like me is a threat then that tells you who is wanted in Syria or who is considered a patriot.”
Jalabi’s surroundings are chock full of similarly shocking tales. Five years ago, her friends were imprisoned for cleaning up a neighbourhood and opening a library. Just recently, a young Syrian man wrote to her on Facebook recounting his horrific experience of confinement and torture after he was arrested for protesting in the streets. He expressed how thankful he was being spared electrocution and death.
“This is why the revolution is happening,” Jalabi said of the public uprising that has been rocking Syria since March. “There is no space for any political or human rights activism. The Syrian regime has left no room for breathing.”
The regime Jalabi describes as “hijackers of a nation” is that of President Bashar Al-Assad, who in 2000 inherited power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, believed to have executed thousands of opponents to his rule.
Glued to her television since the start of the so-called Arab awakening, Jalabi often aches to be back in Syria, marching alongside her people despite the very potent dangers.
“In moments like this, it’s not about surviving but about doing the right thing and standing with righteousness and with liberty and freedom,” said Jalabi.
Unable to sit back powerless, the Concordia University Ph.D. student of comparative religions co-founded the Collective for Syria in Montreal. The group meets weekly to discuss their homeland’s situation and ways to help out from abroad.
Last Saturday, as part of the second global day for Syria, the collective organized a candlelit vigil along Ste. Catherine St. Hundreds of supporters, hailing from Syria, other Arab countries and elsewhere, marched siltently in solidarity of those who have lost or risked their lives in the name of freedom. Heavy on their minds were the children, at least eighty in total, some of them as young as six months old, who have perished in the revolution.
The role of children has been particularly harrowing in Syria’s struggle for democracy. The country’s uprising was sparked by the arrest and severe torture of students of a Deraa elementary school, between 8 and 15 years old. They had scrawled anti-regime slogans on walls and shouted revolutionary chants during recess.
“Egypt, Tunisia and other places have been very brutal, but I don’t think anybody in the region matches the brutality of the Syrian regime, unfortunately,” said Jalabi, deploring the current state of a nation she knows as being traditionally gentle and pluralistic.
Following a rich history of peace and tolerance, relics of the country’s exceedingly diverse heritage, Syria’s human rights situation has been labelled one of the worst in the world. Human Rights Watch has identified censorship, arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearances as rampant in the country.
“The way I see it is you have a lunatic who too took over a building and terrorized the people and eventually what happens is what they call the Stockholm Syndrome, some people start identifying with the brutalizer because their lives are spared,” said Jalabi.
But Jalabi is proud to see that many haven’t ceased fighting. This past Friday, a Syrian human rights organization reported 20 protesters were killed when thousands peacefully took to the streets demanding an end to al-Assad’s rule.
“I’m optimistic,” said Jalabi of the revolution. “There might be challenges but I think the Syrian people have decided that enough is enough.”
(www.montrealgazette.com / 01.08.2011)