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Northeast Ohio Syrians Wait for the Arab Spring to Blossom

Four men have gathered around a dinner table in suburban Cleveland for some home cooking. Their plates are brimming with shish kabob…spinach and cheese pies…and specially spiced eggplant. They're all proud natives of Syria, which is among the most highly educated of Arab populations. Syrian engineers helped build the most prosperous cities of the Middle East. Syrian doctors are behind advances in healthcare across the region. And a man of Syrian-American heritage, named Steve Jobs, helped revolutionize world-wide communication.

Everyone at the table tonight has an iPhone, and the evening is punctuated by an assortment of chirps, beeps and even YouTube videos, bringing the latest news of events back home. Four decades of autocratic rule by Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar, are being challenged by thousands of mostly peaceful protestors in the streets of Syria's major cities. But, they have failed to achieve a critical mass and, under the crushing response of the Assad regime, the demonstrations have flagged at times. United Nations estimates three thousand people killed in the last seven months.

YOUSEF: In every household, people know that somebody's watching them. So, they are afraid to talk. Any single word that comes from your mouth, you may end up in jail or simply disappear.

That's Yousef, one of tonight's dinner guests. But, that's not his real name. Even at this distance from Syria he asked that we not say who he is for fear of what might happen to relatives or friends back home. For Yousef, that fear dates back to late '70s right about the time that he came here to pursue graduate studies in medicine.

YOUSEF: And when the situation started getting bad, my mother --- who was all the time begging me to come back after I finished school --- she told me on the phone, "Don't come back…..Don't come back"

Khalil, another Syrian transplant to Northeast Ohio, nods in agreement. He says many Syrian sons and daughters have gotten that warning from their parents.

KHALIL: So, there's actually a brain drain. There's probably 2700 Syrian physicians in the United States --- this is in a small country that has two or three medical schools. Hundreds of them are practicing in Northeast Ohio.

Case Western Reserve University's Pete Moore is an expert in the political landscape of the Middle East, and he says some of the street clashes have been both frightening and inspiring.

MOORE: In a sense, Syria and Yemen kind of show a cautionary tale of the Arab Spring, because of the ferocity with which these regimes have responded, mostly to peaceful protestors. The majority of the protestors are peaceful, despite the fact that they're being shot at, and intimidated. And that's amazing.

But, Pete Moore warns that noble images of demonstrators looking to topple the government don't tell the whole story of what's happening in Syria --- and what might happen next.

MOORE: In large part, the Syrian diaspora --- both here in NEOhio and throughout the world --- is worried and divided. Most Syrians recognize the drawbacks --- the despotism of the regime --- there's no doubt about that.

On the other hand, Moore says there are still vivid memories of the civil chaos that exploded in neighboring Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed.
Some in the Syrian community worry about what might happen in the absence of a strong central government that has kept a lid on ethnic and religious conflicts.

Popular Syrian composer Malek Jandaliplays a song about his love for his country in a You Tube video, called Watani Ana that's gotten tens of thousands of hits. The song asks: When will Syria be free? It's a question that resonates deeply with Khalil and other Northeast Ohio Syrians.

KHALIL: It just brings a mixture of bad and good memories. Nothing will please me more in my life than to see something happen and change in this country. Yes, the transition will be very difficult but, you know what? Nothing could be worse than what we have right now.

He pauses, and then repeats, "Nothing".

david.barnett@ideastream.org | 216-916-6242