Columnist Sara Weinberger: A people’s anguish through one man’s eyes

  • Mazen Al Hummada, right, and Mouaz Moustafa, his translator, at Edwards Church in Northampton in 2017. michael kane/Valley syrian relief committee

Published: 3/13/2021 9:43:15 PM

Immediately after the bell rang, the hallway filled with students heading home. Would anybody show up for an optional after-school presentation by some guy students had never heard of?

I admit to secretly wishing that the library at Amherst Regional High School would remain empty, giving Mazen a reprieve from watching a room full of high school students bear witness yet again to his story. This would be the fourth time today that Mazen Al Hummada would describe the unimaginable torture he endured, imprisoned by the Assad regime.

Yet, as students began to stream in with their backpacks, quietly taking their seats, some opening bags of chips and sipping from water bottles, I realized that I was the person who resisted opening myself yet again to Mazen’s painful story. By the time he was ready to begin, about 50 students had crowded into the library.

As he began, all eyes focused on Mazen, a tall man with long bones and barely enough flesh to cover his body, wearing a suit with sleeves too short for his lengthy arms. Mazen’s smile was warm, but his angular face, with hollowed eyes framed in dark circles, revealed a man haunted by memories.

His was the face of Syria, of the thousands of civilians detained and then disappeared. An animated Mazen waved his large hands in mid-air, describing to the students how his descent into hell began in 2012, when he was arrested for trying to smuggle baby formula into a besieged suburb of Damascus.

Today he is still plagued by the physical and emotional wounds resulting from tortuous years he spent in Assad’s most notorious prisons. After finishing his talk, students filed by, some tearful, each expressing gratitude for this man’s courage to speak the truth of his life to a roomful of strangers. He received each of them with a warm smile. A miracle that he could smile.

That was what I remember from October 2017, when Mazen Al Hummada spoke at Edwards Church in Northampton and ARHS, organized by The Valley Syrian Relief Committee and the ARHS’s Refugees in Distress organization. The torture Mazen endured threatened to break him on a daily basis, but he had a powerful determination to be a spokesperson for those who died horrific deaths at the hands of merciless perpetrators.

Mazen spoke to anyone who would listen — to government officials, and college students, to churchgoers, and people he met on the street, hopeful that the power of his story would be enough to spark a movement demanding an end to Assad’s brutal war against the Syrian people.

The impact of Mazen’s trauma and his inability to accomplish what he set out to do drove him to inescapable despair. Ultimately, just over a year ago, he returned to Syria, once again joining the ranks of the disappeared.

Whether it was an ever-increasing anguish that made adjusting to life abroad increasingly impossible, or a trap by regime officials to lure him back to the homeland he hungered for may never be known.

His nephew, Ziad, received a call from Mazen after he landed at the Damascus Airport. Ziad recalled that “his voice was shaking and his teeth were clattering,” according to a March 4 article in the Washington Post. Several hours later, Mazen’s social media accounts were all disconnected.

Ten years ago today, the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad used deadly force against unarmed pro-democracy protestors, launching a brutal war against his people. In the decade that followed, half a million Syrians have died, 6 million more have become refugees, and another 7 million have become displaced from their homes by violence.

The influx of millions of Syrian refugees has destabilized Europe and the Middle East and drove anti-immigrant populism in our own country, fueling Trump’s rise to power in 2016. A generation of traumatized Syrian children have witnessed their loved ones murdered and their homes leveled by barrel bombs. Most have no access to education; many are starving in besieged areas, where the regime blocks humanitarian aid.

In the past 10 years, children have grown into adults, married, and given birth to their own children, doomed to a country where 90% of people currently live below the poverty line. Others grow up in refugee camps, where many will become radicalized fodder for ISIS recruitment. The world has turned its back on Syria.

In 2012, former President Obama rejected then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s urging to arm and train the Syrian opposition, opening the door to Russia’s entry into the war as an ally of the Assad regime. His decision left the civilian population in Syria to fend for themselves, while the triumvirate of Assad, Russia and Iran continue their wave of destruction, still seeking the definitive victory that thus far has eluded them.

Plagued by our own national crises, it’s easy to ignore distant, painful realities, yet meeting Mazen makes it hard to turn a blind eye to the anguish of the Syrian people. Mazen Al Hummada symbolizes the depths of Syrian suffering, as well as the determination of Syrians to live freely in the country they call home. I will never forget him.

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at

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