Syrian refugee offers perspectives as war’s horrors continue

  • Guest speaker Ahed Festuk, center, a Syrian refugee, sits with Mehlaqa Samdani, left, of Critical Connections and Sara Weinberger, right, of Valley Syrian Relief Committee before the start of "Keep Hope Alive", an interfaith service for Syria, held at First Churches in Northampton on Sunday, April 8, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Guest speaker Steven Heydemann, Director of the Smith College Middle East Studies Program, talks about the current situation in Syria during an interfaith service, "Keep Hope Alive", held at First Churches in Northampton on Sunday, April 8, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Syrian refugee Ahed Festuk, left, takes a question from the audience after being interviewed by Mehlaqa Samdani, right, of Critical Connections during "Keep Hope Alive", an interfaith service for Syria, held at First Churches in Northampton on Sunday, April 8, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Rabbi Justin David, left, of Congregation B'Nai Israel and Rev. Michael McSherry of Edwards Church together read a translation of the poem, "When I Am Overcome by Weakness", by Syrian Najat Abdul Samad during an interfaith service for Syria held at First Churches in Northampton on Sunday, April 8, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Syrian refugee Ahed Festuk, left, is interviewed by Mehlaqa Samdani of Critical Connections during “Keep Hope Alive,” an interfaith service for Syria, held at First Churches in Northampton on Sunday. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Syrian refugee Ahed Festuk, left, is interviewed by Mehlaqa Samdani of Critical Connections during "Keep Hope Alive", an interfaith service for Syria, held at First Churches in Northampton on Sunday, April 8, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Several poster-sized photographs by Maryan Ashrafi were on display at First Churches in Northampton as refugee Ahed Festuk spoke during an interfaith service for Syria, "Keep Hope Alive", on Sunday, April 8, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/8/2018 11:47:13 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After seven years of war in Syria, Ahed Festuk no longer holds on to the revolutionary ideals that once inspired her to protest against the Assad regime.

“That revolution we used to believe, it doesn’t exist anymore,” Festuk said Sunday at First Churches of Northampton. “It’s just war and people killing each other.”

Festuk, who left Syria in 2015, spoke at an event called “Keep Hope Alive,” hosted by the Valley Syrian Relief Committee led by Michael Kane, Sara Weinberger and Debbie Shriver. To open and close the ceremony, a bell rang seven times to mark the seven years of the Syrian war.

Just one day after a suspected chemical attack killed at least 40 people in a rebel-held area of Damascus (story, this page), the service carried an air of mourning. Tissue boxes sat ready in the church pews. 

“People think the conflict in Syria is either ISIS or the regime, and they totally forget us as a civic society,” Festuk, who is seeking permanent residency in the U.S., said. “Daily life is just struggle and suffering. Some areas really are living under daily bombardment.”

Sitting for an interview with Mehlaqua Samdani, director of Critical Connections, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on issues facing Muslim communities, Festuk cried for her hometown of Aleppo, which fell to Syrian government forces in December 2016 after years of destructive fighting. 

“I felt the whole world against us, everything (was) just destroyed,” she said.

Opening speaker professor Steven Heydemann, director of the Smith College Middle East Studies program and a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said he would argue that Syria’s civil war has fractured over the past 18 months into four distinct conflicts.

The four conflicts Heydemann described were between the Assad regime and the Islamic State; the Turkish government and the Syrian Kurds; the U.S. and the Islamic State; and conflicts between Iran and Israel in southern Syria. 

“It seems that the U.S. and Russia themselves are increasingly being drawn directly to this growing tension between Iran and Israel in Syria’s south,” Heydemann said. “It strikes me that this is the most dangerous of the four conflicts that are currently underway in Syria today.”

With the eastern suburbs of Damascus likely to fall to Syrian government forces within the next few days, Heydemann predicts they will next target rebel-held territories west of Damascus, near the border with Lebanon where Festuk’s family has taken refuge. 

Sharing memories of growing up under the oppression and surveillance of the Assad regime, Festuk said her generation “grew up where walls have ears.” She is a vocal opponent of the Syrian president and political organizer, having faced persecution — once getting shot in the elbow — for her participation in nonviolent demonstrations.

“We used to go to school wearing military suits,” Festuk said. “We used to pray to Assad every morning.”

An accountant by trade, Festuk worked as a paramedic in Aleppo before leaving in 2015 while she was the subject of a documentary by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. She left on a tourist visa, and is currently waiting on her application for permanent residence. 

Other speakers included Rev. Michael McSherry, senior minister at Edwards Church, and Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’nai Israel. Together they read the poem “When I Am Overcome By Weakness” by Najat Abdul Samad.

Grace Spalding-Fecher and Pearl Tulay, students from Amherst Regional High School’s Refugees in Distress Committee, spoke about their work raising money for refugees and speaking at local elementary schools about the humanitarian crisis.

“The students showed a huge amount of compassion and they were able to see the refugees as other humans,” Spalding-Fecher said.

While Congressman James McGovern could not make the event, a statement was read on his behalf.

“We must urgently work with our allies to find an end to this nightmare and find a path forward,” the statement said. 

Sunday’s service was co-sponsored by local faith-based groups such as Beit Ahavah, Edwards Church and the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts. Afterward, volunteers asked for donations to the Syrian Emergency Task Force and sold “Soup for Syria” cookbooks in the entryway with proceeds going to the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.


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