Hit the road, Damascus tells Americans By Stephen Starr
DAMASCUS - Americans living in Syria are feeling the effects of a snarling
international entanglement. Demonstrations denouncing the United States, and
the expulsion of a number of Americans working in US-owned institutes and
schools, have led expatriates to question the viability of their future here.
Those who have been affected by the slide in US-Syrian relations are not
marines, politicians or diplomats. Many are American individuals and families
who had built new lives in Syria and come to appreciate the Middle East as
something altogether different to that portrayed by US media.
Up until late October, Syria had slowly but surely repositioned
itself as a legitimate player on the international scene. An invitation for
President Bashar al-Assad to sit before the July 14 national day parades on the
Champs Elysees in Paris was followed by what was expected to be the biggest
news story of the year: French President Nicolas Sarkozy's three-day visit to
Damascus in September.
But soon the historic visit was overshadowed. Syria was to appear in headlines
just weeks after the French president's visit when 17 people were killed in a
blast in Damascus and again on October 26 when four American helicopters landed
in the eastern border village of Sukariyya. What followed was the "massacre" of
eight Syrians reported by an English-language magazine in Damascus to have been
"just day laborers and the wife of the building janitor ... one of them was an
elderly man, who left behind two blind grandchildren in his custody".
Nursing a badly bruised ego, the Damascus government returned a tigerish
volley. But the strong rhetoric had more punitive effect on American
expatriates in Syria, than it did on Washington. Speaking during a forum on
Democracy Now! shortly after the attack, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem
said, "Killing civilians in international law means terrorist aggression. The
Americans do it under daylight. This means it is not a mistake. It is by
determination, by blunt determination. For that, we consider this a criminal
and terrorist aggression."
Tens of thousands of Syrians participated in organized demonstrations in cities
across the country to protest against American aggression in Syria and
throughout the region. Points of American symbolism, including the American
Cultural Center, were singled out to show Syria could not be pushed around
without consequences. American educational institutions were caught in the
Three institutes in the Syrian capital: the Cultural Center, the American
Language Center (ALC) and the Damascus Community School (DCS) were all closed
as a result of the cross-border raid. The American Embassy closed for a day on
October 30 when demonstrators marched outside its grounds. Few, however, had
the oversight to see how regular people would be affected.
Via e-mail from Amman, Jordan, Veronica Gonzalez from California said,
was living in Damascus for 15 months and really fell in love with the city. I
had planned on staying at least another three years, but so much for that. The
teacher visas were based upon our positions at DCS and with the closing of the
school our visas were revoked and we were asked to leave Syria. Initially, we
were to leave within 24 hours, but then were given an extension until November
6. Some teachers returned to their homes in the States, other went to Southeast
Asia to await the job fair and to regroup and a few went to Cairo or Amman.
Many of the teachers were living in Syria on short-term tourist visas, allowing
them to stay in the country. However, many long-term residents who had made
Syria their home were forced to leave the country along with their families.
On November 14, the ALC, a language institute attached to the US Embassy with
an enrollment of 2,300 Syrian students, held an emergency meeting. The staff
was told of the plan of the Syrian People's Assembly (the Syrian parliament) to
deport teachers and staff. They were told they would be informed two days later
about whom the Syrian government would expel.
What followed were several days of anxious waiting by the phone for the
center's entire teaching staff. Many of those deported came to Syria to seek
out a new culture and to discover what life was like behind the headlines.
Scott Johnson, from San Diego, has been in and out of the Middle East for the
past seven years. Having returned to Damascus in July after finishing graduate
studies in London, he had planned to spend several years in Syria to improve
his Arabic and to gain further experience with Arab culture.
When the ALC closed its doors, Johnson was forced to look elsewhere for work.
"You know, I feel responsible for my country when I come to somewhere like
Syria to try and make it clear that Americans are good people, but where do I
stand when something like this happens?" said Johnson. "The Syrians are angry
about what happened and for me, I have to leave my friends and a city I gotten
to know so well.’
According to the ALC's administrative staff, none of the students has received
any refund since the closure of the institute. Many of the teachers have left
Syria, unable to support themselves.
Many ALC instructors were in Syria to study Arabic and were teaching to fund
their studies. The director of the institute, Steve Boeshaar, had returned to
the United States for a short visit to meet family just before the US attack
took place. When he attempted to return to Syria immediately following the
attack, he was refused. Eventually, Boeshaar was allowed re-entry.
John Gates, the director of the Damascus Community School, said his institute
was shuttered by the Syrian government immediately following the helicopter
attack. In an e-mail interview, Gates said, "The campus, as it is American
government property, was turned over to the American Embassy on that day
[November 6] and the embassy controls that property."
As of today, no one is allowed to enter the school premises.
The timing of the raid confounded many. In September, meetings between senior
Syrian government officials and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called
for Syria to increase troop numbers on its Iraqi border. Damascus, keen to
solidify its international position following Sarkozy's visit, obliged. The
move allowed US officials to publicly state that cross-border activity into
Iraq had decreased.
Since then, however, troops that had been sent to the eastern border have been
redeployed to the border with northern Lebanon - a further attempt to hit back
at Washington. Since the cross-border attack, Syria has been attempting to show
that it retains some semblance of moral authority. The consequences of this
stance have adversely affected the lives of ordinary Americans.
Still, the US military adventures in other countries in the region, several
openly hostile to America, is stretching people's ability to stomach
Washington's maneuvering. As a 2007 report from Georgetown University made
clear, "the war in Iraq is not limited to Iraq".
A Syrian analyst close to the regime said, "A few months before the attack
American and Syrian military leaders surveyed the Syrian-Iraqi border and both
sides were noted to be happy with how it was being patrolled. I think this raid
was carried out to make it more difficult for the incoming administration in
Washington to work with Syria. Syria is furious over what happened and at the
end of the day the president of America will always be an American no matter
who it is."
This diplomatic spat is likely to rumble on with neither side having very much
to lose. But for some of the expelled teachers, their Syrian odyssey is over.
"I'm leaving for Jordan now. I've got some friends there and I'm going to see
if I can find a teaching job. I'm going home to the States for Christmas and I
had planned to return, but I'm not sure what is going to happen now. I have to
wait it out," said Johnson.
Some analysts have argued that the US bombing raid allowed Syria to purge the
ALC of undesirable elements. The bombing may have been an excuse for Damascus
to get a leg into the ALC and the adjacent US Embassy in order to keep tabs on
An e-mail received from one teacher said, " ... the 'rumor' is that they [the
Syrian government] want a solely Syrian staff of teachers".
One ex-employee is suing the ALC for 500,000 Syrian lira ($10,000). Other
rumors circulating refer to the possibility of a connection between those who
were expected to be expelled from Syria and those who are operating as
Christian missionaries, something which is highly illegal in Syria.
The Damascus-published Forward magazine ran the headline: "To our American
readers" on its November front cover. Inside a series of articles and
photographs running to 14 pages denounced the strike and depicted blood-stained
concrete from the attack site.
As the demonstrations that followed the raid in Sukariyya show, Syrians are
angry. Meanwhile, what remains of the American community here is disillusioned
The families of the dead in Sukariyya have been long forgotten by the
international media while ordinary Americans, who had the ambition to live in a
country regarded by their own government as a terrorist sponsor, remain
Waiting in Jordan, Gonzalez said, "All I will say is that I am very sad about
the way the situation was handled. Damascus was home to all the teachers and
everyone loved being there and really got into [its] life and people.
Obviously, if we are living there, we know better than to support the way the
US government handles foreign policies. I don't think that there is a DCS
teacher - American or Canadian - that supports the way my country perceives and
interacts with Syria. I don't know yet if I can go back to Syria. Word has it
that we can't go back any time soon. I hope they will let me go visit my
friends at some point."
Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist in Damascus where he serves as
deputy editor of the Syria Times.