What We Ignore, We Empower: Five Decades of Despair Under the Assad Regime

From The Washington Institute
Spring 2021
Also published in Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy
Oula A. Alrifai is a fellow in The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics and a former asylee from Syria. She holds a BA from the University of Maryland and an MA from Harvard. Her thesis at Harvard, “The Self-Flagellation of a Nation: Assad, Iran, and Regime Survival in Syria,” focused on the development of the Iranian-Syrian relationship in the 1970s and 1980s through the lens of religio-political dynamics.

Alrifai is the executive producer of the award-winning documentary Tomorrow’s Children, which explores the plight of Syrian refugees forced into child labor in Turkey. The documentary is available to stream on Amazon Prime. Prior to rejoining The Washington Institute, Alrifai worked at the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Articles & Testimony

A Syrian scholar and expatriate lays out the legacy of terror under the Assads and urges the Biden administration to prioritize the country’s sundry crises.

JMEPP’s 21st edition, Middle East Beyond Borders: Empire, Diaspora, and Global Transitions for spring 2021 offers its first preview of the edition with an article by Harvard alum Oula A. Alrifai, of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, herself a Syrian and scholar of regional developments regarding Syria. Here she commemorates a decade of dictatorship and terror in Syria under Assad, and urges the Biden administration to prioritize Syria. 


Media www.rajawalisiber.com  – While March 12th marks fifty years of dictatorship and terror in Syria since Hafez al-Assad’s infamous coup d’etat, March 15th is the 10th anniversary of the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime. For most Syrians, since at least 2011, the very idea of home is shifting beneath their feet. A whole nation has gone forcibly homeless during the past ten years.

Having fled my hometown, Damascus, in 2005 as a result of direct death threats from Bashar al-Assad, my family and I still continue to struggle to make sense of the idea of home. Where is home and what it means? Most people do not navigate life between the layers like I do. Being an immigrant yesterday, today, and tomorrow, I am constantly thinking of which part of me belongs and blends the most, and what aspects of my being provoke the least. I search for home in the bits and pieces of my day, every day. Sometimes it makes sense, but most of the time it is a struggle. Perhaps the idea of home is this for now; it is the collective pain Syrians carry with them on this earth. We share this home regardless of where we find ourselves. Our fate seems to be decided by tyranny. But is this how it should be? I refuse to accept that.

I see Syrians holding Bashar al-Assad and his father’s regime accountable for all the crimes they have committed against them. Without accountability, the future would be even darker. The daily horror Syria has witnessed during the past ten years in front of the eyes of the world is nothing like it has seen before. After a decade of utmost despair, would Syrians one day be free? I want to believe so. I want to see it happen. As I debate this question in my mind, I am reminded of Gandhi’s words. He says: “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.” I dream of Syria as a country where the people determine the destiny of the nation, not one man! Not one family! Bashar al-Assad will never change, he only knows how to destroy a country and burn it down. And silence emboldens his illness. Bashar al-Assad must not be allowed to grow stronger. [1] Syrian immigrants and refugees across the globe share this home of pain, while they dream of a home of freedom, justice, and basic human rights.

For four decades prior, Syrians suffered in silence. And during this past decade they find themselves always lost and always asking for directions. They feel stuck in a tornado blowing them whichever way the wind blows. They pack their identity in a suitcase looking for a new home to plant their roots; hoping that where there are roots there is power, only to be confronted with the reality that they are merely topsoil. They work hard and succeed, yet they still feel homeless, estranged, and out of place. Their lives have to fit in a small luggage for the journey ahead. Most of the childhood photos are gone. Only a few are saved and carried from land to land. Their hopes and dreams are shattered. They belong nowhere, yet they strive to fit everywhere; in the places in between. They are never seen. They should be seen.

Zakany, Hungary – October 5, 2015: War refugees at Zakany Railway Station, Refugees are arriving constantly to Hungary on the way to Germany. 5 Octoberber 2015 in Zakany, Hungary.

I am a Syrian by birth and an American by choice. On September 7, 2005, my family and I were forced to flee Syria. Although I despised the system I grew up in, it was still painful being uprooted. My family and I did not leave Syria by choice. No. That choice was made for us by the Syrian authorities whose sole claim to legitimacy lies in the fact that they have power, and whose only reason for ordering us to leave our country was their desire not to be held accountable for the way they exercise their power. The willful blindness that was a necessary part of my existence in Syria and made life tolerable was removed the moment I set foot in the United States. My blurred vision at the time was nothing more than a necessary transitional period during which I had to learn how to see again, how to live again, and how to regain my sense of purpose.

Overcoming hardships are ideals embraced by my family, and their historical struggle and accomplishments keep me moving forward. On my mother’s side, my great-grandmother was an English teacher in Haifa during the British Mandate of Palestine, while my great-grandfather obtained (by mail) a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Bennett College of Sheffield. In 1948, my grandmother with her parents fled their hometown Haifa to Syria when she was six years old. They found refuge at the ancient Jobar Synagogue in Damascus. In Syria, she grew up to become one of the first female medical doctors in the 1960s and was the one who instilled in me a strong work ethic and the value of education: something no one can take away. On my father’s side, the Alrifai family is highly respected as leading Islamic scholars (ulama’) in Syria. Because of the Assad regime, I lost my maternal grandfather who died under torture in Assad’s prisons in early 1980s. I also lost my father in 1991 due to health complications as a result of torture by the Assads. And in 2005, I lost my country due to direct death threats to my mother and stepfather. Pain is carried on from one generation to another. When will this end?

As an American, we have the resources to help before our collective neglect can never be undone. America can be a leader with an integrity to tell the truth in a world that lacks it. America has the power to make people listen and the grit to act on it. “We the people” are the hope of the oppressed, in Syria and everywhere. Millions of Syria’s children [2] are crying for help. We have to resist becoming numb to their sorrow. [3] And we should all be sorry for the loss of life. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said; “when children are starving, how can we in the future expect them to be apostles of peace?” For four decades, the voices of millions of Syrians were muted by tyranny and fear. But since 2011, Syrians have broken the fear only to face violence, torture, terrorism, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, kidnappings, assassinations, mass graves, regional politics, international politics, egos, interests, and the list goes on and on. Syrians do not have the luxury to survive additional cascading scenes of policy failure. Syria’s human rights activists and freedom fighters, most of whom are no longer with us, have sacrificed their lives for freedom and democracy. [4] Their legacy should be carried on and their dreams should be fulfilled, at least for their children. America must not be implicit. In fact, the brutal dictator is giving President Biden every reason to prioritize Syria. [5]

To save Syria, America’s policy must change. It cannot be a continuation of the status quo. It is time to correct past mistakes of prior U.S. administrations. Sectarianism, a failed healthcare system, a collapsed economy, [6] displacement, [7] and human rights violations are problems of the future in Syria if we stay silent. These problems are certainly the only future Syrians have, if we fail to act now. Because it is a simple truth; what we ignore, we empower.



[1] Oula Alrifai, “Assad is growing stronger under Trump’s nonexistent Syria policy,” The Washington Post, December 29, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/12/29/assad-is-growing-stronger-under-trumps-nonexistent-syria-policy/.

[2] John Michael Baglione, “The not lost generation,” The Harvard Gazette, October 18, 2017, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/10/syrian-asylees-release-documentary-to-highlight-struggles-of-child-refugees/.

[3] SANAD Syria, “Tomorrow’s Children – Trailer,” YouTube, October 16, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haqdB4EFZyY.

[4] Oula Alrifai, “In Memoriam: Raed Fares and the banners of Kafranbel,” Journal of Middlle Eastern Politics and Policy, December 12, 2018, https://jmepp.hkspublications.org/2018/12/12/in-memoriam-raed-fares-and-the-banners-of-kafranbel/.

[5] Aaron Y. Zelin and Oula Alrifai, “Assad Is Giving Biden Every Reason to Prioritize Syria,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 3, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/assad-giving-biden-every-reason-prioritize-syria.

[6] Oula Alrifai, “Syria’s Economic Crisis Sparks Rare Protests in Regime Territory,” Thee Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 31, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/syrias-economic-crisis-sparks-rare-protests-regime-territory.

[7] Oula Alrifai, “How the U.S. Can Help Ease Idlib’s Catastrophe,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 14, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/how-us-can-help-ease-idlibs-catastrophe.

Oula Alrifai


Oula A. Alrifai is a fellow in The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics.


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