“It’s about human life. It’s not about Americans or Syrians. I am trying to heal patients.”

Mouhanad Al Rifay
Mouhanad is a Syrian-American award-winning documentary filmmaker, humanitarian and human rights activist. He is a first year AM candidate at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, advancing his expertise in Middle-East-focused critical political and cultural commentary, with a broader interest in nonfiction and narrative writing.

In the midst of the COVID19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests that captured the United States, my friend Mouaz Haj Bakri is unable to shake off the flashbacks of his time in Damascus during the heydays of the Syrian revolution. Yet, he still wakes up every morning at 5:30 a.m. to help save lives at the MedStar Washington Hospital Center where he’s completing his medical residency in Internal Medicine.

Mouaz came to the U.S. in 2018 after passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination, leaving his family and friends in the United Arab Emirates, seeking political asylum here. He “initially wanted to stay in Damascus” upon graduating from the University of Damascus Faculty of Medicine in 2014 but “it became impossible because of [his] political situation.”

Like thousands of young Syrians, Mouaz is wanted by the Assad regime for demonstrating peacefully in the early days of the Syrian revolution.

“I became someone who is followed and wanted for captivity by the regime … so I had to flee.”

Mouaz was born into a liberal family in the UAE, a place he cannot call home because non-native Emiratis do not have a clear path towards citizenship. In 2008, he went to Damascus to attend medical school. He neglected building a life there, or putting down any roots, because to him “everything was temporary at the moment.”

The Haj Bakris cannot return to Syria. Like my own family, they have been outspoken against the Assad regime and must stay in exile.

At the start of the Arab Spring, Mouaz and his friends “started to have some hopes” that “the word change is something [they] could discuss and act on” in Syria. His entire focus shifted in March 2011 with the start of the Syrian uprising, from studying to protesting.

“I wanted to be part of true change in my country. I wanted to belong to my country. I wanted to build some sense of identity that I never had really. I was born in a foreign land, and always heard stories about Syria but never related to it.”

“Everything changed in 2011,” Mouaz told me in a phone call. “I started relating to the land, to the idea … to the creation and preservation of dignity and freedom.” Mouaz participated in the revolution, “demonstrating regularly multiple times a day” until he was shot at by Assad regime loyalists and detained in December 2011.

In prison he “was tortured and humiliated … but nothing compared to people who died.” Shortly after his release, Mouaz started protesting again until the armed resistance took hold.

“My profession was to study medicine. My philosophy does not have any violence in it … I couldn’t be part of the violence” he said.

With the world turning its back on Syria in 2013 his “hope faded away.” At the time, the Assad regime launched a major arrest campaign detaining peaceful activists, “the true enemies”–  particularly students who “dared to stand against them.”

His university life became “very dangerous. Very limited.” For over two years, Mouaz went to “Damascus University only during exams.” He isolated himself and stayed away from people. He changed his residence regularly without “telling anyone where [he] was.”

He left Syria “the very next day” after graduating in late September 2014, and hasn’t been back since.

After arriving in the United States in 2018, Mouaz struggled to see the value of his medical practice in the Washington, D.C. area for months. Knowing the enormity of need, he wanted to “prevent death” in Syria. The world has not experienced a humanitarian crisis of that magnitude yet. The medical need is enormous, especially as the Assad regime continues to target hospitals and medical centers around the country.

Little did Mouaz know that in March 2020 he would be preventing death in the United States.

At MedStar Washington Hospital Center Mouaz now works at least 13 hours a day, doubling the number of patients he sees, half of whom are COIVD19-positive. The number of coronavirus cases is expected to spike in the wake of massive protests in the D.C. region.

“Wearing and losing Personal Protective Equipment [PPE] is exhausting,” Mouaz told me, describing his daily routine at the hospital. To protect himself, his patients, and the medical staff he is required to change his gloves, gown, mask, goggles and face shield in between visits. “It gets hot, sweaty, and it compromises the quality of your care” Mouaz said as he described the heroism of the staff at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “The nurses, respiratory therapists, and the cleaning staff, are the true heroes, not us [physicians], they expose themselves to this virus nonstop” as they provide critical care for COVID19 patients around the clock with minimum PPE, if available.

Like most Americans, Mouaz watched the heinous murder of George Floyd on video with horror. It reminded him of videos recorded by Assad regime forces as they humiliated, tortured, shot and killed innocent Syrians whose only fault was protesting peacefully for change.

On his Facebook page he shared a video of Black Lives Matter protesters, in Lafayette Square, chanting “I can’t breathe” minutes before the administration decided to clear them aggressively with tear gas, or pepper balls as the White House claimed, and rubber bullets for Trump’s now infamous photo-op by the St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Accompanying this quote by Martin Luther King Jr. “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” Mouaz wrote: “white supremacy should be taught an unforgettable lesson by all of those who feel and want to live in a just world. Silence is complicity.”

Syrians have gotten used to massive unrest, political polarization, bloody protests, and excessive use of force. It has been almost a decade since the start of the Syrian Uprising in March 2011, dubbed the Dignity Revolution. In the face of ongoing bloodshed, indiscriminate shelling of cities, and displacement of millions of innocent civilians, Syrians have not lost hope.

The Syrian Revolution is not over.

With the dramatic fall of Syrian currency in recent days, the skyrocketing cost of living, and the Assad regime’s weaponization of COVID19 aid, loyalists are now protesting by the thousands in areas previously under regime control.

Syrians, around the globe and inside Syria, believe in our common human dignity. And that we, the human race, are all equal. We collectively have the right to freedom, peace, and democracy, and that the killing of one person equals the killing of all of humanity.

In Idlib, a city under siege, the last opposition-held territory in Syria, an estimated 4 million people are cramped anticipating an imminent COVID19 outbreak and a looming offensive by the Assad regime and Russian military, where activists graffitied a picture of George Floyd on the remnants of a destroyed home saying “No To Racism … I Can’t Breathe.” [1]

 

Mouaz knows that his duty is to prevent death, regardless of it being in the United States or in Syria. Even though he is not a U.S. citizen yet, this country considers him essential, valued, and needed. His worth stems not from his race, or immigration status, but from what he offers.

He risked his life in Syria, and he risks his life here. “It’s about human life. It’s not about Americans or Syrians. I am trying to heal patients.”

On Saturday June 6, his first day off in weeks, Mouaz joined the protesters at the Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House in Washington, D.C.

 

Endnotes:

[1] “Art of protest against George Floyd’s death.” Reuters. 16 June 2020. https://www.reuters.com/news/picture/art-of-protest-against-george-floyds-dea-idUSRTS3CQVR.

 

 

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