A Syrian Refugee and Echoes of the Past
Under the Assad regime, we never learned about the Holocaust or the refugee ship St. Louis
Op-ed in the Wall Street Journal
Syrian refugees coming ashore on the Greek island Lesbos, Sept. 3. Photo: angelos tzortzinis/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
A 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach this week, after he and other refugees drowned trying to reach Europe. Photos of the child, Aylan Kurdi, face down in the sand wearing a tiny red T-shirt and sneakers, captured world attention on Thursday. It is the latest reminder for me, a Muslim who fled my home in Syria several years ago, of the civil war’s horrors.
My thoughts then turned to those who never got out. Recently in the U.S. Capitol I saw photos of men, women and children who had been emaciated, mutilated, bloodied and burned.
Many of these pictures, part of an exhibit on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the next year, were taken as recently as last year. In Syria I helped people injured in peaceful demonstrations. If I had been caught, I would have been another victim in the photos.
Sitting in the crammed exhibit space, I listened as several congressional leaders talked about the crisis in Syria during the presentation of the exhibit—opened with bipartisan support last month—titled “ Caesar’s Photos: Inside Syria’s Secret Prisons.” I heard Sen. John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, remind the audience that the U.S. has pledged to stand up for victims of mass murder and torture. “We promised: never again,’ ” Sen. McCain said, referencing the commitment made after the Holocaust. “My friends, today it is happening in Syria.”
A fellow Syrian came up to the podium to talk about the friend he lost to torture, and the torture that he himself had endured at the hands of the Assad regime. That brought back the memories I have been trying to suppress for years: the memories of my friends who were killed—and the realization that I can’t laugh with them anymore.
Growing up in Syria, we were never told about the Holocaust. I never learned about the murder of at least six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. I never heard about the profound effect of this tragedy on the Jewish people, an effect that persists to this day.
So when I learned that the Holocaust Museum had put on an exhibit of some of the 55,000 photos smuggled out of Syria by an anonymous Syrian army officer who hid the evidence on thumb drives in his shoes, I decided to visit and see all of the museum.
During my tour of Holocaust exhibits, I was gripped by one particular event: the tragic voyage of the S.S. St. Louis. On May 13, 1939, more than 930 Jews fled Germany aboard that luxury cruise liner. They had hoped to reach Cuba and then travel to the U.S. But they were turned away in Havana and forced to return to Europe, where more than 250 were killed by the Nazis. I wondered: How could the world have abandoned these people?
But then I remembered the present. Syria’s population is 22 million. At least 250,000 have been killed. More than 11 million are internally displaced; their homes have been destroyed. Four million have fled Syria for other countries such as Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon.
I know from experience what they are running from. In the early days of the uprising against Assad, an employee in our hospital failed to show up for work. Government security forces, known as the Mukhabarat, had arrested him, mistaking him for someone else. We paid kickbacks to Mukhabarat agents and got him out after two days. He told me police beat him all the way to jail, then took him to a torture chamber, where they stripped him naked, put him in a freezing water barrel, took him out and hung him on the wall from his hands and started electrocuting him. Then they beat him again.
As a Syrian who was forced to flee this horror, I’ve joined forces with Jews, including descendants of Holocaust victims, and people of all different religious beliefs who have forged the nonprofit Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. With them, I’m knocking on doors, talking to anyone who will listen, to get more relief for the Syrian people. We need a place where we are safe from the barrel bombs and chemical attacks of the Assad regime or the terror attacks of ISIS. We need to get more people resettled in the U.S.
The cruel fact is the Syrian people feel abandoned and left to die in silence, like the passengers of the St. Louis. People ask me why I am dedicating my life to this work, when I could have stayed silent. My son, who was 3 when the crisis began, will someday ask me what happened in Syria. I imagine he’ll also ask me how I responded. I can’t imagine telling him I did nothing.
Mr. Martini is senior Syrian adviser to the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees.