On a windy April night, nearly 100 people met at a candlelight vigil in Federal Plaza. Organized by the Women’s March Illinois the Women for Syria vigil eulogized Syria’s estimated 500,000 dead and demanded an increase in the United States’ intake of Syrian refugees in the wake of President Trump’s missile strikes in the country.
Among a group of mostly women—some with tightly-wrapped hijabs, others with floppy pink knitted hats—were several Syrian-American doctors cautiously hopeful that somehow the air strike would be the beginning of a shift towards greater U.S. engagement in Syria.
Syrian-American doctors interviewed at the vigil say peace in Syria can never be found with Assad in power, and oddly, this has driven them to a renewed hope in Trump, a man who ran on a promise to end Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States and whose son once referred to Syrian refugees as Skittles that “would kill you.”
While Trump said his strike would end “the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria,” Syrian-American doctors interviewed are deeply skeptical of the U.S.’s next steps to end a six-year war that has targeted health care workers and displaced half of Syria’s population.
“What Syrians have learned to say over the years is malna ghir Allah [We have no one but God] in this apocalypse,” says Dr. Mufaddal Hamadeh, president of the Midwest chapter of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and a local hematologist oncologist.
Hamadeh says the Syrian-American community’s response to Trump’s engagement has ranged from euphoria, when the missile strike was announced, to disappointment at its scope and the warning given to Russia, an ally of the Assad regime, before the attack.
“If it isn’t followed by further action, it will be totally, totally meaningless,” Hamadeh says. “It won’t prevent Assad from killing other people, and honestly I don’t know what’s better: dying in your sleep from sarin, or being blown up by barrel bombs.” Instead, Hamadeh believes the U.S. must set forth clearer policy on Syria to end the conflict.
For some, the chemical attack in northwestern Syria that killed scores of civilians and inspired Trump’s attack felt personal. Dr. Razan Massarani-Wafai, a Chicago-area pathologist, says she has family members who survived previous chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime.
Trump’s strike was shocking but also a welcomed departure from what Massarani-Wafai sees as the previous administration’s inability to enforce a “red line” after the Ghouta chemical attack in 2013. Like many Syrian Americans, however, she has doubts on the Trump administration’s ability to navigate the Syrian quagmire.
“No one knows what the exact solution or the right thing to do in Syria is, but we can all agree that a political solution needs to happen,” she says, “but I have lost hope that it will happen anytime soon. The whole world just continues to play its cruel game on our people.”
Syrian-American doctors like Massarani-Wafai are perhaps the closest American civilian group to the prolonged six-year conflict. Some have lost relatives there and many conduct volunteer medical missions in the surrounding border countries as part of their work with SAMS, which supports 100 medical facilities in Syria and provides medical care for 2.3 million Syrians still living in that country, according to the SAMS website.
Dr. Bassel Atassi is a Chicago-area oncologist and a recent mission leader of a SAMS effort to serve Syrian refugees in Jordan . Like many other Syrian-American doctors, he welcomed the missile strike.
“Actually, when Trump ran, we thought Syria would get worse,” Atassi says. “We believed that the U.S. and Russia would join in new agreements, but what happened [April 6] changed our minds. We hope—although as Syrians we don’t want a foreign country to strike our homeland—that this will lead to a real political solution to end the killing of civilians and children.” Atassi is also hopeful that Trump’s strike will end the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. “Maybe [Assad] will continue using barrel bombs, but chemical weapons, no. He knows the U.S. will strike him again.”
The conflict has forced Syrian-Americans to look at intervention from an issues-oriented not party-oriented perspective, says Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a senior adviser to SAMS and critical care specialist who has conducted a medical mission to Aleppo to survey hospitals and deliver medical supplies in 2016.
“I demonstrated against Trump’s Muslim Ban, building the wall, deporting immigrant families, and shutting the doors in the faces of Syrian refugees,” Sahloul says. “I think his policies on environment, healthcare, and education are wrong. But striking a war criminal who gasses children and sending him a strong message was the right thing to do.” Sahloul faults Obama’s hesitancy in intervening as a catalyst for the death of an additional 300,000 Syrians and displacement of an additional three million refugees since the first large-scale nerve gas attack in August 2013.
Dr. Nour Akhras, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, has mixed feelings on a strike led by a president who ran for office on an anti-Muslim and anti-Syrian platform, but she sees the support of the strike as a sign of the calamity facing her community. “When you are hemorrhaging on the [operating room] table, you don’t ask the blood donor about their intentions-you just take the transfusion,” Akhras says. “That’s the position Syrians have been forced into today.”
To see that many Syrians were happy about the airstrike speaks to the despair of their situation, she says.
“No sane person welcomes a foreign attack on their country,” Akhras says. “But to see Syrians rejoice, well, that is indicative of how desperate we have become for someone to finally stand up to the Butcher of Damascus. And this Trump’s strike is some sort of relief that, finally, someone is.”