Monday, May 12, 2014

America the Savior

Growing up in war-torn Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, my family was on the side of Beirut that liked, or rather loved, America and Americans. (Yes, there is such a place in the Middle East, or at least there was.)

What we knew came from television and movies, but what we felt came from somewhere inexplicable. At least in my family, we always knew America, with its people, technology, culture and of course political clout, was an amazing place.

We felt there was little America and Americans couldn't do and we desperately needed them to do something to save us from our miserable, fearful existence.

In the dark, long days and nights of the Lebanese civil war, we longed for America to come to our aid. And America came twice. Once America came in the form of the US Marines. They were so welcomed, admired and truly adored (by many) until one fateful morning in 1983 when those doing the bidding of the Syrian and Iranian regimes killed 241 of them and put an end to their comforting, hope-inspiring presence.

Beirut Memorial at Camp LeJeune
Then America came again in 1984 when East Beirut was under attack. This time, the USS New Jersey came to Lebanon's coast and fired nearly 300 shells towards the hills above Beirut to stop our attackers. These were the loudest explosions of the entire war, but they gave us a perverse comfort since they were American and were directed at our enemies.

But as the war raged on, America stopped coming.

Then later in 1984, on a rare, quiet spring morning after a sleepless night of shelling, my parents woke me and my siblings to ask us one question: If we could leave for the United States, would you want to go? The answer was a quick and unanimous yes. After trips to the U.S. Embassy and the American University of Beirut Hospital, we were awarded visas and cleared for travel to the U.S. Little more than two months later, we had sold almost everything we owned, said our goodbyes and were on our way.

And so we came to America.

What we found in America was much more than what the world sees in movies and on television. We found a people with a generous spirit and unlimited kindness; we found endless potential for those who dare to dream and limitless results for those who work on their dreams. We found a place with plenty of bad and more of the good, a place always evolving to become a better version of itself, a place where the future holds enormous promise. Simply put, we fell in love with this amazing country.

I am so grateful for all that I found and I'm even more grateful for the freedom from the fear that dominated my childhood. Almost 30 years later, I believe now more than ever that there's little America and Americans can't do.

But as much as I love this country, I'm filled with sadness as I look at the devastation in Syria. I'm sad and appalled that America hasn't come for the Syrians as it came for us. I worry that Syrians who survive this insane war may never know the America I found. I worry that by walking away from the people of Syria and allowing hundreds of thousands to be killed and millions to be displaced, America itself is diminished. My America is better than that. I still have hope that she will live up to her own standard of greatness, and I pray the Syrian people will see and feel this greatness first hand.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Inhumanity and the Moral Limit in Syria

I wrote this piece for the Cleveland Plain Dealer about Syria. I welcome your feedback. 



Inhumanity and the moral limit in Syria

In this September 2013 photo, smoke rises after a TNT bomb was thrown from
a helicopter, hitting a rebel position during heavy fighting between troops loyal 
to president Bashar Assad and opposition fighters, in the neighbouring village 
of Kafr Nabuda, in the Idlib province countryside, Syria.(AP)

Guest Columnist/

 February 01, 2014

At the start of the “Arab Spring”, I was so optimistic about the prospect of democracy in the Middle East and heartened by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.  On my mind was the oppression of millions of Syrians by the brutal Bashar Assad regime.  Also on my mind was my experience during Lebanon's civil war and the enormous damage the Syrian regime did there.

For 10 of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, my siblings and I outran bombs to reach home from school, took tests while watching sniper bullets bounce off of the building next-door, heard and felt that terrifyingly loud sound of exploding bombs, spent long days and nights in rat-infested shelters; and of course dealt with the poverty and degradation of being refugees—not to mention the repeated damage to our family's home and grocery store, navigating off-limits streets and intersections targeted by snipers and so much more.  These horrors probably make anyone who's had a normal childhood cringe.

But here's the bad news: What the Assad regime has done to its own people since March 2011 is far more brutal, destructive and degrading than the enormous damage it did in Lebanon. I never imagined this was possible, but it turns out there's no limit to the regime's inhumanity.

Syria's numbers today are astounding: 130,000 dead (including thousands of children), more than 575,000 injured, nearly three million refugees outside Syria, nearly five million refugees displaced inside Syria; 43,000 Syrians detained and thousands suffering from starvation and lack of shelter. Then there are the latest revelations of Holocaust-like torture of thousands.

I suspect these numbers are conservative and don't account for the destruction of entire villages and cities and the fear, pain and hopelessness millions of Syrians are enduring every day.

When the uprising began, I naively thought that once the world community sees the real Assad regime, something would happen to remove it from power and Syrians would finally have a dignified life. I thought what kept Western countries from looking into the atrocities committed by the regime for the past four decades was the nearly perfected, sophisticated, lying facade of the Assad family and their apologists. Once the truth was revealed, I was sure things would change.

Fast forward to January 2014. Thanks to traditional and social media, the world is aware of the massacres and we continue to see horrifying images of mutilated bodies, rows of dead children and so much more. My hat is off to saintly aid workers and journalists, but the rest of us do nothing to stop the madness. Where is our outrage?  Where is our humanity? Where is the world's conscience?  Have we become numb to the images of the suffering, torture and mutilation?

Forget the fiasco about red lines and chemical weapons. And, forget the peace talks in Geneva, which are unlikely to be productive as long as Assad is in power. The fact of the matter now is clear as day: The world knows Assad's brutality well and does not care.

I don’t claim to have the answers to the difficult and complicated geopolitical considerations, but I know two things must happen: The bloodshed must be stopped and the criminal regime must be removed and punished.

I understand the plight of Christian minority inside Syria. And, yes, Iran, Russia, Israel and the American public make military action difficult. But when does it all stop?  Teams of experts reviewing the recently released torture archives have made a direct comparison to the Holocaust.  Are we waiting until the number of dead Syrians reaches six million?  Has the world learned nothing from Holocaust?  Shame on every world leader and on every one of us for not doing more, for not caring more, and for not demanding the end to this holocaust.

In the words of the late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens (who was writing in 2010 about Henry Kissinger's reference to gas chambers on the Nixon tapes), "There has to be a moral limit, and either this has to be it or we must cease pretending to ourselves that we observe one." 

So, does my beloved country have a moral limit when it comes to Syria? Does the world? 

Boustani is a Lebanese-American who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the 1980s.