The Syrian conflict can seem like a distant reality for most Americans, but for 26-year-old Syrian American activist Suzan Boulad, there was a time when it was too close for comfort — when the thud of the shells landing was no longer coming from YouTube, but from outside the house where she sat, huddled under flickering lights, wondering how close they were.
The walls of the house would shake every few minutes. She was in a village outside of Idlib, Syria, in an area then controlled by the Free Syrian Army that was being bombarded by forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. It was March 2013, a time in the war when the Free Syrian Army was still ascendant and ISIS had yet to fully emerge. It was a moment fraught with risk for Boulad and the Syrian activists she was working with — but also one still full of possibility.
She had come to Syria with a delegation of American activists. Earlier that day they had participated in a protest in the city of Kafranbel, a city famous for its anti-regime protests featuring clever signs written in English, often with pop culture references.
Raised in the Sacramento area, she often visited her native Syria as a child and was hushed by anxious relatives whenever the conversation veered toward Assad. When the anti-regime protests begin in 2011, she followed along via Twitter, quickly becoming absorbed in the cycle of protests, causality reports and more protests that marked that stage of the Syrian version of the Arab Spring.
Boulad’s family is from Homs, a city that at one point was called the “capital of the revolution.” When there were protests there, she would look through footage and scan the crowd for faces she knew. Soon, she was helping to organize protests in the US with the Syrian American Council in solidarity with her friends and family in Syria.
“I was shouting in the streets of my native country. I was speaking my mind in a place where I had only ever been told to hush, and to stop asking questions. I had heard activists in Syria say for years that the fear barrier had been broken, that they were no longer afraid, and I didn’t really internalize what that meant until I was speaking out for myself.”
But that night, the thrill of protest would give way to stark fear. Her Syrian guides dropped her off in a house with five other female Syrian American activists, and went to get the rest of the group. That’s when the shelling started. They stayed in the darkness in the hallway until the rest of their group came, then huddled in a circle in the living room. There were no Syrians with them when the explosions started getting closer.
It quickly became apparent that her suburban California upbringing had not prepared her for this moment.
“The bombs sound like they are literally about to fall on top of us. If we had a Syrian with us, even a child, they know what the sounds are and can prepare. Should we stand on one side of the house, or the center? They know these things. But there really isn’t that much we could do. It’s just a matter of staying as calm as you can. There was lots of praying.”
The shelling eventually faded and, the next morning, Boulard saw smoke rising from a destroyed building less than a mile away from where she had been. Some of her fellow American activists decided not to stay, but Boulad was part of a group of about eight of them who decided to continue to Aleppo, which to this day continues to be one of the most contentious conflict zones in the Syrian Civil War.
Her decision to say would shape her life in ways she couldn’t have predicted. It was there that she met an unlikely group of young revolutionaries called the Free Lawyers of Aleppo.
Most were recent law school graduates who had grown frustrated with the corrupt, nepotistic and suffocatingly bureaucratic legal system of the dictatorship. They hoped to create a new, more principled system in FSA-controlled territory, one that would lay the groundwork for the rule of law in a new post-Assad Syria. There were some religious tones to it as well — as in most revolutionary moments, there was a healthy debate about what the new system would look like, once they won the war.
Boulard knew two things: She wanted to help this movement; and she wanted to be a lawyer.
“I saw the most value in [law] as a tool. It felt like if there is no rule of law, then you can’t advocate for women’s rights, you can’t advocate for minority rights,” she says. “They convinced me that that was the foundation of a stable and solid country going forward, and that’s what I wanted to work on.”
“And I felt like there was this huge opportunity to do something really radical, but also to get academics and international institutions to come in and help out. I was thinking that the regime going away was going to be a matter of maybe a couple of years. … I was thinking that if the regime falls soon, we can have all of these great minds, working with brilliant Syrians who finally have a chance to show what they are made of, and create something really lasting. That’s what I wanted to be a part of. And I also felt like that’s where I could work as a Syrian American too.”
It didn’t work out that way. The moment of heady optimism in the Syrian Civil War that occurred around 2013 feels like an eternity ago. Syria has become more of a proxy way. As Russia and Iran pumped up their support for the regime, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States more aggressively funded militant rebels. ISIS broke away from the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nursa Front and has taken over swaths of Syria and Iraq. The US stepped up its own involvement, eventually sending in anti-tank missiles, which undercut the regime’s advantage in heavy armor.
While the Syrian conflict is more complex than ever, one thing that’s clear to Boulad is that the civil society she witnessed during her trip to Syria has been slowly worn down. The Free Lawyers of Aleppo, for instance, still have a Facebook page, but it hasn’t been updated since April.
Boulad eventually would like to return, but now, as a third year law student at the University of Minnesota, she has been focused on organizing rallies in the Twin Cities calling for more support for Syrian refugees.
It’s an issue that hits close to home, and one she’ll be addressing at a forum PRI is organizing with the nonprofit Gazillion Strong in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Oct. 29.
“My family left Syria a long time ago, I was raised here in the US, but I was very close to my cousins and considered them sisters. And it felt like under any other different set of circumstances, that could have been me,” she says.
And while the situation on the ground in Syria seems bad, Boulad still finds plenty of reasons to press on.
“Eventually, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, and the conflict will have to come to an end, and if I can’t say I did my best, in whatever way I could, from the very beginning, then I don’t think I would ever forgive myself. Emotional as it is for me, there are people that won’t give up and so I can’t either.”