Syrian Activist Feels Like US is Punishing Him for Surviving Terrorism
Boston-based Syrian activist Mohamad Al Bardan could easily tell his own story as a kind of “profile in courage.” It would be about a young student protester who saw his peers gunned down, but didn’t stop demonstrating.
He could describe how, even after he left the country and got a masters degree and a high-level tech job in the US, he kept pushing for human rights in Syria and for the fair treatment of Syrian refugees across the world.
But the way 28-year-old Bardan tells it, his story isn’t so simple. There are parts of it he still struggles with: When you live and watch others die, or when you leave while your friends stay, a bit of “survivor's guilt” is inevitable.
And he’ll tell you courage is relative. Yes, he did attend demonstrations as Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown began in 2011, but once he saw police open fire on a protest, he made sure not to stand in the front row the next time. Twice, he drove to protests but couldn’t get out his car. He remembers shaking from fear.
“You can say that you are brave enough, like you don’t care about losing your life at certain times but that’s not the truth when it comes to reality," Bardan says. "Everyone wants to stay alive. I remember there was a huge amount of fear."
He may have gone through a lot, but Bardan seems himself as lucky. He was accepted to Northeastern University for grad school and left Syria just as the government started cracking down on demonstrations, but before the civil war began in earnest and ISIS became the brutal force it is today. He often wonders what would have happened had he stayed.
“Maybe I was one of the refugees here and there, or maybe I was one of the victims. I feel like I’m privileged,” he says. “I’m lucky enough to be here. I got my visa before things had started.”
“Politicians shouldn’t be reactionaries. What happened in Paris is a sad, heartbreaking event. But fighting terrorism is totally a different thing. It should be systematic, not reactionary,” he explains.
“It’s not a one-dimensional problem. For sure, our duty here is to protect this country, to protect the national security of it, and it is the first priority for all of us. But at the same time, we have other responsibilities, we can’t turn our backs to the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. ... I totally understand all the concerns, but as a Syrian, I want to tell people, we are humans at the end, and we need to feel that.”
His parents and siblings are still in Syria, and he fears that after the attacks in Paris, they won’t be able to get visas to visit him. It may be too risky for him to go back home. So he doesn’t know when he will see his family again.
“We are the ones who suffered from what happened during the last 4.5 years. My parents just suffered from losing many beloved ones around the country, and we are seeing that we are being punished one more time right now.”
He hopes that the pain the Paris attacks caused will, in the long term, lead to a deeper level of empathy and understanding.
"Turning our backs on refugees is not the right reaction to the Paris attack. We need to open our hearts for them and feel that they have the same pain."