NEW YORK — For many, the ongoing crisis in Syria is something that has been experienced only through the media — through terrible images of the people killed in last week’s suspected chemical attacks and television footage of bombed out buildings throughout the country.
But for tens of thousands of Syrian immigrants in America, the deadly conflict has hit closer to home, via phone calls and messages from family and friends who are still in Syria and worried about their own safety as the civil war threatens to get worse.
Among them is Mohamed, who emigrated to the U.S. two years ago from just north of Damascus. On Thursday night, he was seated on a stoop along a busy stretch of Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, home to several businesses owned by Syrian-Americans.
The block has become a congregating point for those with connections to Syria, where they come together and share what news they’ve heard from back home. And it’s also, in recent days, where he and others have debated the question of the moment: Should the Obama administration pursue a military intervention in Syria?
“You don’t understand how it feels,” Mohamed, who declined to give his last name out of fear that his family back in Syria could be retaliated against. “It’s all we can think about. We wake up worried. We go to sleep worried. We feel powerless. There’s nothing we can do but worry.”
But Mohamed still isn’t sure how he feels about the possibility of a Western-led military strike. He’s still not sure he believes that President Bashar Assad is responsible for last week’s mass killings. And he worries that any outside intervention would only empower rebel forces in the region — which he believes have come to Syria from other countries in pursuit of “jihad.”
But mostly, he says, he doesn’t want to see his homeland become another Iraq — referring to the 2003 U.S. invasion after which that country was never the same.
“So many people died,” Mohamed said of Iraq. But he acknowledges that people are dying in Syria — and many more are likely to die with or without U.S. intervention — and that leaves him conflicted.
And that seems to be the sentiment of other Syrian-Americans around the country, who appear to be largely split on what, if anything, the United States should do about Syria.
Since last week’s suspected chemical attack, there have been protests across the country — including in Los Angeles, Miami and Atlanta — urging the Obama administration to intervene in the Syria. Many of those protests have been organized by the Syrian American Council, a Washington-based group that has been handling humanitarian relief in Syria.
But there have also been protests against the prospect of a military strike, including one held Thursday night in Allentown, Pa., a city home to one of the largest Syrian immigrant populations in the country.
There, participants waved signs that read “Hands Off Syria” and argued that Assad is not responsible for last week’s chemical attacks and that the U.S. should stay out of the conflict.
One of the protestors, Elias Batihk of Allentown, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen who lives in Allentown, defended his country’s leadership in an interview with The Morning Call. While he acknowledged that Assad had not been picked in a free and competitive election, much of the country still supports him.
"We never said it's a democracy, but we're happy with what we have there," Batihk said.