October 04, 2011 01:00 PM By Brooke Anderson

The Daily Star
Demonstrators, during a solidarity protest for Syria, in Geneva, Switzerland, Saturday, May 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Keystone/Sandro Campardo)

BEIRUT: When Malek Jandali’s parents were brutally attacked at their house in Homs in July following a performance by the renowned Syrian pianist of his song, “Watani Ana” (I am my homeland), he canceled the rest of his tour for fear of further reprisals.

Then, two weeks ago, he posted graphic photos of the aftermath of the attacks on his parents on Facebook, in an album he called “Mom & Dad after Brutal Assault by Syrian Government Thugs.”

Like Jandali, an increasing number of expatriates are speaking out against their government, despite knowing the potential consequences of their activism.

For many the benefit of expressing their opinions outweighs the cost of continuing to live in fear for their loved ones, a sentiment that would have been hard to come by before the uprising began six months ago, since when more than 3,000 people have been killed, mainly civilian protesters, and more than 10,000 detained in the government crackdown.

“I’m not worried about it anymore. For me and others close to me who’ve spoken out, there’s no turning back,” says Omar Dahi, an assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

The Syrian expatriate, who had never before publicly criticized his government, says he thought long and hard before writing a detailed account of a trip he’d taken to several cities in Syria over the summer. In “A Syrian Drama,” published Aug. 13 on the blog Syrian Comment (considered sympathetic to the government), Dahi leads by writing “The Syrian regime is in big trouble” and that “the regime is effectively done.”

Instead of fearing for his family’s safety, Dahi says he now feels an obligation to speak out.

“People inside are taking so many risks, and we need to share the burden,” he says.

“It’s imperative to speak out. If you retreat now, then they’ll go after everyone. It’s the best way to support people on the inside. The protesters want us to speak out and follow their lead.”

Although nothing has happened to his family in Damascus so far, Dahi says he still doesn’t speak with them about sensitive topics over the phone.

“I still don’t discuss politics over the phone. It’s changing. People are starting to discuss things online. People are careful, but much less so than a few months ago. And there are more debates taking place within the protest movement,” he says.

Indeed, as Syria’s protest movement matures, there is increasingly vocal discussion within the expatriate opposition about how to move forward.

Amr al-Azm, a member of the National Council, which formally launched this weekend, who lives in Ohio where he is a professor at a Shawnee State University, says taking part in the opposition at such a prominent level leaves him particularly vulnerable.

“When they want someone and they can’t get them, then they go after their family. I expect no less from them,” he says. “I’m very concerned because they’re my family and they [the government] are doing everything they can to prevent the opposition from doing any activity.”

Some of Azm’s colleagues have been attacked both inside Syria and abroad for their activities, but he believes that the increased threats make it imperative for Syrian activists to continue to speak up.

“The regime can only sustain the pressure and the climate of fear for so long. Both the regime and the protesters have passed the point of no return.”

Another prominent activist in exile, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, says his wife’s family in Damascus has been threatened by the authorities there. He admits that if the threats against his in-laws get worse, he may halt his activities.

It’s unclear how the Syrian authorities have been able to link Syrian activists abroad, particularly the less-prominent ones, to their families back home. But some people have accused the Syrian foreign missions of supplying information on dissidents abroad.

In an email message to The Daily Star, the Syrian Embassy in Washington stated that “there have been concerted efforts recently by individuals and the media to spread lies and distortions regarding the Embassy of Syria. These preposterous allegations claim that the Embassy is involved in targeting or intimidating Syrian expatriates in the U.S., which is absolutely untrue.”

The statement claims that such allegations are “an outrageous travesty of truth, promoted and proclaimed by vicious circles, [and] come within the framework of an extensive campaign to instigate hatred and incite animosity.”

Syrian-American activist Ammar Kahf acknowledges that it is “difficult to prove a connection between someone taking a picture of activists here in Los Angeles, and an arrest occurring in Damascus.”

Other activists blame Facebook for giving authorities an easy reach to activists abroad.

[youtube http://youtu.be/fjqR7H6YumE?]

As most foreign journalists have been banned from reporting from the country, much of the reporting inside the country has come from citizen journalism, using cellphone cameras, YouTube and Facebook.

And while the social networking site has served as a powerful tool for organizing anti-government protests, it has also been used by the authorities to track dissent.

After being blocked for three years, Syria reversed its ban on Facebook and YouTube in February this year, a few days after small protests began to emerge, leading some to speculate that the policy was aimed more at increasing government monitoring than loosening its grip.

A young student from Latakia who became an activist when the uprisings began posted videos on Facebook of the Syrian protests from Germany. He then got an anonymous message saying, “We can’t get you, but we can get your family.”

Another Syrian activist abroad, who wished only to use his first name, Mohamad, says he had to “defriend” some former college classmates from back home who were writing abusive messages on his Facebook wall after he posted critical comments about his government.

He says he chose to speak out because he could no longer stand idly by as the violence against peaceful protesters mounted. Still, he doesn’t discuss the situation with his parents over the phone.

“Lately, my elderly parents have been so scared to talk to me. Every time we talk they want to assure me they are doing very well and hang up. I’m not sure why they do that,” Mohammad says.

The situation in his home country is also affecting his family financially.

“My brother is a professional who lost his job and cannot find a new job,” he says. “I had left some money back in Syria last time I was there, and now I told my family to use it, this was to be a payout to the Syrian government in lieu of me serving in the army. Of course, we are not going to pay them now.”

A Syrian-American activist, who requested anonymity because his family in Damascus had recently been threatened, says that it is precisely because of this fear that people must speak up.

“Syrian expats know too well that the regime will not hesitate in harming relatives in Syria to silence all voices abroad supporting freedom and democracy,” he says. “It is more reason for me to speak out against such a regime that has no value for human life and dignity.”