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    Middle East
     Dec 11, 2008
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 backlash.

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,
I 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 its activities.

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 and distraught.

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 distraught.

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.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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