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Syrian-American Eman Sahloul, 20, of Orland Park, said she still feels in denial about her cousin's death in Homs.

Syrians in Chicago live in fear for safety of relatives in embattled country

by Tara Kadioglu
Oct 30, 2012

Eman Sahloul coffee pouring

Tara Kadioglu/MEDILL

Sahloul, preparing coffee and baklava at her Orland Park home, said she hopes for a no fly zone above Syria.

Eman Sahloul's cousin Lama Rifai courtesy Salem Ahkras

Courtesy of Salem Akhras.

Eman Sahloul's cousin, Lama Rifai, sits with her children in Homs, Syria. A sniper killed her this summer. She was 34.

Tara Kadioglu/MEDILL

Syrian-American Eman Sahloul, 20, recounts her cousin's death by a sniper in Homs, Syria.

Mazen Sahloul, 53, said he lives in fear that his three sisters and mother could die at any moment.

“Sometimes when they don’t answer the phone right away, you have a bad feeling that, ‘Oh my god, what’s happened? Are they killed? Is their house bombed? Did a sniper get them?’”

The Sahloul family, which lives in Orland Park, lost 13 family members in the battered city of Homs, Syria’s third largest city, under siege since March 2011. Most of their relatives, including Sahloul’s mother and sisters, live there.

Sahloul, an engineer, is one of about 4,500 Syrian-born people in Cook County, according to 2011 census data. His daughter, Eman, is one of the nearly 2,400 American-born people of Syrian ancestry in Cook County, according to 2010 U.S. census data.

“People in general may not be so aware of our presence in the community,” said Eman, 20, who is an activist in the community. “I think our neighbors might not know unless we put a Syrian flag outside and we explain what’s going on.”

Armed conflict and a humanitarian crisis have plagued Syria since March 2011, when activists and rebel forces—including the main opposition group composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces, the Free Syrian Army—launched an uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The number of casualties is now likely 35,000 to 40,000, according to widely cited reports.

With another 150 people dead despite an attempted ceasefire this weekend, the Sahlouls may have lost more family.

Syria now has 1.2 million internally displaced people, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Among those internally displaced would have been Mazen Sahloul’s cousin, Lama Rifai.

But she joined the death toll statistics instead: A sniper killed Rifai in front of her three children in June before she had the chance to escape Homs for the relatively safer capital city of Damascus, Eman said.

Eman spent time with Rifai and her children in 2010, the last time she was in Syria.

“I’m still in denial to this moment,” she said.

Eman said Rifai was shot because her sprained ankle slowed her down as she walked to the cab where her kids were waiting. Rifai’s children “had to run, pick her up and just throw her body on their laps and drive off,” in case the sniper attacked again, Eman said.

“She’s not armed. She’s not a rebel. She’s trying to get her kids in the car,” said her father. “This is not just one story; this is one of maybe thousands.” He said the closest person he lost was the son of his second cousin, who he said was stabbed when buying bread at the bakery.

Eman said she lost other relatives by random fire, tanks shelling their homes, and another one to torture.

“You’re glad that they actually died,” Eman said, adding that torture there can be worse than death.

Mohannad Rachid, 18, of Burr Ridge, said he also had a relative suffer torture in Syria. After 40 days of whipping and beating, Rachid’s uncle, Ala Adin Muhdi, 21, escaped for Egypt, Rachid said.

Muhdi escaped detention after powerful local lawyers arranged for a trial, Rachid said. While awaiting trial, he fled the country.

While frustrated, Rachid, the Sahlouls and others in Chicago’s Syrian-American community are taking matters into their own hands to respond to the suffering of loved ones and other Syrians abroad.

Rachid said that since last year he has raised $10,000 for the Free Syrian Army by selling t-shirts at protests and through friends. He said there was no website to buy the shirts.

The Zakat Foundation, a Muslim relief agency based in Worth, Illinois, has also been contributing to the crisis. The organization’s chair, Mazen’s cousin and Eman’s uncle, Dr. Zaher Sahloul couldn’t be reached for comment.

However, the organization’s Palestinian-American program coordinator, Feras Abdelrahman, said the organization has spent more than $5 million to deliver food packages, first-aid kits, operate hospitals, and lease apartments to Syria’s refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Zaher Sahloul is also president of the Syrian-American Medical Society, which has raised $2.5 million in medical relief for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. It also sent more than 100 doctors in the past year to border area hospitals.  

The Sahlouls visit Syrian refugees at the Turkish border once or twice a year to donate money for food and blankets. They spend the rest of the year raising this money through the Zakat Foundation. Eman said she also participates in protests and “flash mobs” twice a month where people hold informational signs and pretend to die.

This Halloween, she plans to join trick-or-treaters knocking on doors in Burr Ridge and Naperville, but instead of asking for candy, she will hand out educational fliers on Syria.

Eman was born in Chicago 10 years after her dad and his brother escaped his hometown of Homs right after the 1982 Hama Massacre. Reports on that massacre said the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, killed an estimated 30,000 people.

Mazen said it was hard to leave his family behind. “I don’t hope anybody to feel like I felt that day.”

“You know, we lost all the memories,” he said. “Even my high school books, my military books, everything of mine, the pictures—everything is gone now, even our home, it’s gone.”

Eman said the horror in Syria is more than a Syrian issue.

“I don’t like to identify myself as a Syrian, because this is a humanitarian issue,” she said. “Obviously my involvement from the get-go was that my family was there. But when you see the pictures, you can’t help but want to help.”

The Sahlouls and Rachid expressed disappointment with U.S. policy toward Syria—and little hope for change, no matter who is the next president.

Mazen Sahloul and Rachid said they wanted to see the U.S. arm the rebels, while Eman Sahloul said she wanted the U.S. to declare a no-fly zone over Syria.

“Even with the last debate, they talked about Syria and neither one mentioned they could support the Free Syrian Army,” Mazen Sahloul said.

Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama both said at last week’s foreign policy debate that they wanted to support the rebels, but needed assurance the arms wouldn’t go to extremists.

Obama said the U.S. must be “absolutely certain” that “we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or our allies in the region.”

Similarly, Romney said the U.S. should make sure such arms do not go into “the wrong hands.” He also criticized Obama for not taking sufficient non-military action.

But Obama added that his administration pushed humanitarian efforts in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton organized a multinational diplomatic effort under the Friends of Syria group earlier this year to mobilize and organize “the moderate forces” in Syria.

“Honestly, it’s been two years and they’ve done nothing,” Rachid said of the U.S. government. “I would like to see Syrians win this on their own at this point.”