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CEPEDA: The reluctant Syrian activist

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

CHICAGO -- Hadia Zarzour's mental outlook has steadily deteriorated from excited hopefulness about her future into an anxiety-fueled countdown over her pending return to her Syrian homeland.

The 33-year-old Fulbright scholar came to the U.S. on a student visa in 2009 with the aim of sharpening her counseling skills so she could provide therapy to men and women back home. But she's now caught in the nightmare following the deaths of her friends and her family's daily fears. Yet despite the risks of speaking out against the Assad regime, even from afar, Zarzour has become a reluctant activist.

"I was so excited last year when the Egyptian revolution began and I started going out into the streets with the protesters," said Zarzour, who completed her master's degree in community counseling at Loyola University in Chicago last May. "People here take for granted their freedom of expression, so it's hard for me to explain how it felt to go on Michigan Avenue and see people calling for the topple of a regime. It was a joy but I was scared. I was looking around to check whether people were filming and wondered if it would get back to the government in Syria."

Zarzour explained to me that when she left Damascus in 2009, things were tense but quiet. "We were always scared of the government -- the '80s (Hama) massacre when 40,000 were killed in one month taught us that you can't say anything about the government or the president. We knew not to open our mouths, but it wasn't anything violent, everything was peaceful.

"Then when the Egyptian uprising began, people began asking me when it would be Syria's turn, and I said no, no, it'll never happen in Syria."

But by early February 2011, protests had broken out. Then the March 15 "Day of Rage" had been planned to call for political freedoms and an end to corruption. The unrest has since worsened. As activism has morphed from peaceful opposition to violent rebellion, the government has further cracked down on citizens' rights. So far the United Nations estimates that more than 8,000 have died during the violence and thousands more have been displaced. Now even routine phone calls home are coded and tense.

"We used to Skype, and now that the government is monitoring it, Facebook, and all social media so closely, my family has asked me to stop communicating with them because just talking or texting puts them at risk," Zarzour told me. "My brother was stopped on his campus by police and held for five hours because of comments he posted on Facebook. They looked through his phone to see if he had pictures of rallies or protests."

Figuring she's already a government target just for studying in America, Zarzour has become an activist on behalf of her voiceless family and friends. When she's not working as a mental wellness counselor for Southeast Asian refugees, she helps organize support rallies and speaks to anyone who'll listen about the tragedy unfolding in her homeland.

"Sometimes I feel like no one wants to hear about it," Zarzour said, "and so I've started to bypass talking about the political situation to talking about how our children are being tortured and women are being raped.

"I'm also doing all I can from here by sending my contacts back home information on how to deal with so many women who have been raped." Most aid agencies have been barred from Syria, so there is little way to verify how widespread the problem has become.

Zarzour has always been committed to returning home to revive the fledgling counseling practice she'd started before she came to the U.S. With her student visa about to expire, Zarzour faces the prospect of returning home as early as July.

While some U.S. organizations are petitioning U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to create temporary protected status for Syrian nationals to extend their stay in this country until conditions improve there, no one knows if this will happen, so Zarzour is ready for anything. She knows her advocacy has put her life in danger back home, but is unbowed.

"I really want this story out," she said. "People need to know what's going on in Syria."

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.