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González: Hey, I’m Ana

Nunes: And I’m Alex. This is Mosaic.

González: Today on Mosaic, we meet Mohammed. In this country he’s a student, a husband, a friend. But in his homeland, Syria, he was a doctor and an outlaw, saving lives and smuggling drugs to combat an oppressive regime.

Mohammed: It wasn't about like getting better life or getting better education. It was, the core reason was just because I didn't want it to commit anything bad after everything I did. 

Nunes: What does Mohammed mean by that?

González: That’s the story we’re gonna tell. 

Mohammed: Where are we going? We could, we could sit in the Watson. There's also a very nice place you could sit in the Watson. 

González: I’m walking down Thayer Street in Providence with Mohammed, through the heart of Brown’s campus. It’s August, but not too hot. We’re trying to find a quiet place to do the rest of the interview. We settle on Brown’s International Relations building. He and his wife are actually packing up and moving to New York City in 2 weeks so that Mohammed can start a PhD program at Columbia, so I’m glad I caught him. 

González: So do you spend a lot of time on campus. 

Mohammed: Uh yeah. And like the School of Public Health. Down the hill when when I used to have classes here. 

González: Mohammed just graduated from Brown with his Master’s in Public Health. We actually met because I’m friends with someone who was in the same program. I’ve hung out with him and his wife a number of times: going out to dinner, going to the beach, and eating desserts. 

Nunes: He sounds kind of like a typical Brown student: driven, smart, and pretty lucky to be able to attend an Ivy-league school. 

González: Yeah, that was my first impression, too. But, there’s actually much more to Mohammed’s story. 

Mohammed: We got this public health interest, but it wasn’t, it was not the reason why I left the country. 

González: Even though Mohammed came here in 2017 to go to Brown, he didn’t want to leave Syria. He had to. Because back in Syria, Mohammed was on the front lines of the Syrian civil war, saving the lives of protestors. In Syria, he’s officially considered a terrorist. I should mention, his name isn’t really Mohammed, either. He’s asked me change it for his own safety. And his story doesn’t start when he gets to Brown’s hallowed halls; it starts in 2009, with a funeral.

González: Mohammed’s mother’s family is from a village in rural Damascus. She had cancer. Leukemia. It was a short battle. And when his mom died in 2009, the whole village turned out. Mohammed was a fifth-year medical student.

Mohammed: Like people in those villages, you have the sense of the family on a bigger scale. So when we when the funeral going, like the whole village was out. The whole village, everyone came.

González: The day of the funeral, there are the standard calls to prayer. One of them, though, is dedicated to Mohammed’s mother. The entire village comes to the mosque, and, instead of the Imam, Mohammed leads the prayer for his mother. It’s short, maybe 2 minutes, but the room is packed. Familiar faces raise up their hands and whisper to Allah for Mohammed’s mom. I can tell that recalling this day is hard for him.

Mohammed: So and she was like my main source of strength, inspiration, financial support, everything. And, like, because of her death, moving to the US became more frustrating. Because if that didn't work, or I failed, the backlash would be much... There was no wall behind me I could just lean into, and say I didn't work out . I need to find something else. So that make the decision much harder on me. 

González: So Mohammed remembers his mom’s death as the first big challenge in his life. Before this point, Mohammed had been planning on coming to the United States to finish his medical training.

Nunes: Yeah, it’s pretty common for people in the medical field, at least, to come to the US for training  they wouldn’t have in their home countries. But it sounds like Mohammed doesn’t really want to do that.

González: Yeah, he doesn’t. Especially after his mom dies. 

Nunes: Something like the death of a parent and burying that parent in their hometown really roots you to a place. 

González: Yeah, this moment deepens Mohammed’s connection to Syria. And it makes him even more ambivalent about going to the US because his mom, his rock, won’t be there to help him if anything goes wrong.

Nunes: On top of that, the political situation in Syria is on the verge of exploding. Towards the end of 2010, whispers of protests are coming out of Tunisia and Egypt. By December, there are widespread demonstrations against those oppressive regimes. Thousands of citizens are demanding change. It’s the beginning of the Arab Spring.

González: The sound you’re hearing is from a YouTube video from someone’s phone in 2011. In it, thousands of Syrians are standing in the streets of the town Hama, shoulder to shoulder, chanting, demanding a change of regime. It’s powerful, but it’s peaceful. They wave flags, clap their hands, and repeat, “Oh, Bashar, you should go”, in reference to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Nunes: And it’s important to note here: what we now think of as a devastating conflict in Syria involving ISIS and chemical attacks, started out as peaceful protests in 2011, inspired by the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia.

González: Right. Syrians, like Egyptians and Tunisians, are protesting their lack of human rights, democracy, and freedom.

Mohammed: And then things escalated directly afterward. People started getting shot in Damascus. More demonstrations start to happen. People start to get arrested. And at this time, we had the chance to see what was happening.

Nunes: The president was, and still is, the dictator Bashar al-Assad. He, and his father who ruled before him, would do things like torture and kill political oppponents and control the press. 

González: Yeah, everything in Syria is run by bribes and dirty money. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Nunes: Where does Mohammed fit into all of this?

González: Mohammed’s still a student, but he’s also been volunteering with the Red Cross as a first aid responder. Before 2011, they were mostly going to big soccer matches and helping people with heat stroke. But once the demonstrations start, Mohammed and his team start responding to what we would call police brutality.

Mohammed: So we tried to respond, like, to demonstrations, to people getting shot people getting beaten really hard through the aggressive. And, a lot of time, we will go to the place of the demonstration we see the demonstration and see people demonstrating what they are saying how they behaving and how the security apparatus how the state side of the people are behaving. Like, who is the terrorist here? Who is the demonizing here?

Nunes: It sounds like the security isn’t there to protect.

González: You’re right. Mohammed says that the security forces at these protests have one goal: to do as much harm to the protestors as possible. 

Mohammed: It was about causing death, causing trauma, causing like the person who wouldn't be able to arrest they would try to beat him hard as much as possible on the head, on the face whatever they could cause the permanent damage. It was really savage in every way.

Nunes: This amount of violence and trauma is so intense, it’s all-encompassing. I know Mohammed is still in medical school at this point. Can he even think about school?

González: In the first three months of the protests, he’s still going to classes and studying for his qualifying exams to enter the US for clinical training. But, yeah, he has seen so much. He saw how peacefully the protests started and how violently the government reacted. He sees how the government is blocking the truth, censoring all international press and calling the protestors terrorists. 

Mohammed: It shocked me in my core. And I know that whatever decision I will be making and what and how I'm dealing with, what I'm seeing directly would be the thing that I will evaluate my value as a human being. That's how, and  I couldn't run away from that. I couldn't run away. 

Nunes: He has all the skills and knowledge to really help people. To save lives. I could see how going to school in the US at this point would feel like running away.

González: Yeah, that’s how Mohammed is feeling. And after June 2011, he doesn’t have any more classes or work until January. So, for the next seven months, Mohammed a full-time member of the resistance. And he makes the decision to stay in Syria for as long as he can survive.

González: What would a normal day be like? Or I guess there's no normal day in that kind of situation. But, when would you get up? What would you do?

Mohammed: Following news, knowing what was happening on the ground. Like I was trying to build a network of first aid responders. Trained people from different areas just on the basics of first aid: how to put an I.V. fluid, how to kind response to a gunshot in the limbs, for example, how to stop bleeding. 

Nunes: Why does he feel compelled to take this on himself? Isn’t there other first aid available to people? What about hospitals?González: So, there’s a bigger issue going on. The public hospitals have become dangerous. Mohammed would bring protestors who have been beaten within an inch of their life to the hospital, and then nurses would go get security guards, who arrest the protestors on site and torture them. And the physicians and surgeons are seeing this and realize they can’t trust these hospitals. So, they start what Mohammaed calls underground healthcare facilities.

Mohammed: So people for example find a secure warehouse or a secure home. And they will they will prepare a place to become a small operation room just to stabilize cases. For example clamp a bleeding artery. Or like taking shrapnels out of chest or some other places. And it wasn't just like to do the full clinical intervention needed just to stabilize the case so the person could go hide for a couple days for things to calm down. Or sometimes he could go to a public hospital claiming he had a car accident, claiming they had something different and get the needed treatment there. 

González: Mohammed is still technically a medical student during this time, so he’s not performing these surgeries himself. But he figures out that, with his access and mobility, he can transport medicine from the public and private hospitals in Syria to the underground facilities. 

He begins to smuggle drugs. And this is considered an act of terrorism against the Syrian state. He’s arrested.

Mohammed: I mean arrest is the legal definition is illegal or it when you say arrest here. Here, you see that you see by people wearing official uniforms coming to a person telling him what is happening. He have specific rights, you have something. There is a specific procedure. In my case, and in much people case in Syria, it's not an arrest. It's a forcible disappearance. It's an abduction.

Mohammed: Because people would come, would put an AK 47 to your head, and would tell you to come with them. This would be the case.

Nunes: Does anyone know that this is happening besides Mohammed and the guards who take him? 

González: No. Mohammed is out in the field when it happens. He’s helping survivors of an attack, and he had just pulled shrapnel out of man’s chest. It’s still in his bag, covered in blood, when he’s captured and taken to a prison. He spends 3 and a half months there. 

Nunes: 3 and a half  months? With no one knowing knowing where he is?

González: It’s actually longer than that. He’s moved after that, to a prison he describes as a black hole. 

Mohammed: There was no sunlight. There was nothing. And like the place was tightly closed. We are alive just because there was an air sucking machine that pump air into the rooms. 

Nunes: That sounds like torture.

González: It’s so claustrophobic. There are over 60 men in the 15 by 20-foot cell.

Mohammed: If the electricity would stop for two hours, people start dying. It was that tight.

González: Mohammed is there for almost 2 weeks before he almost gives up. He can’t sleep for three nights in a row. On day 15, he’s taken out of the cell, blindfolded, and has his hands tied behind his back.

Mohammed: You cannot see anyone, your hands always tied to your back. And people are like just beating everyone else, coming and beating everyone. This what is what they call a "goodbye party". Then I went back to the room to where I was waiting with a lot of people. And then a person from my back start calling me using my SARC nickname. 

González: SARC is the name of the Red Cross response team he was on. Syrian-Arab Red Crescent. His nickname there is Prof. 

Mohammed: And he starts saying,”Prof. Prof.” And like that moment it was mystic in its own way. And he was like a very dear friend for me. 

González: Mohammed had been alone for months at this point, going from one black hole to another. So hearing the voice of a friend calling to him was huge. They spend the next days together, talking, regaining the will to live.

Mohammed: Those day and half were enough for me to just recharge everything back to more than what they used to be. 

Nunes: So, Mohammed and his friend help each other survive their horrific prison experiences. 

González: Yeah, and they actually get transported out of that prison together.

Nunes: Are they released?

González: No. In Mohammed’s case, he’s sent to another prison while he awaits trial. And his case gets moved to a newly formed court, terrorism court.

Nunes: Terrorism court? Is that to, like, establish a paper trail? To prove people like Mohammed are terrorists?

González: Yeah, exactly. A hardcore dictator move. But, Mohammed says that nothing ever came of this. He thinks that there were so many cases and the court was so new, that his case was sort of forgotten about. It’s technically still open. But they let Mohammed out on bail.

González: Which ones you though? 

Mohammed: This is me. 

González: Oh, that’s you. 

González: Mohammed’s showing me photos on his phone. While he was in prison, nobody knew where he was, so people made posters with his face on them and wrote things in Arabic, like “Where is he?” and “Bring them home”. Mohammed is pictured in his red first aid jacket and glasses. 

Mohammed: This is them our names like this my name and his name. 

González: And is this your jacket? 

Mohammed: This my jacket. I still have the same jacket back home.

González: The next photo Mohammed pulls up is of a sheet cake. It has a picture of two hands, chained together at the wrist, reaching up and letting go of a bright blue butterfly.Mohammed: I knew this was my release cake. Friends made it, my SARC friends made it for me. So what I did that I cut I cut the chains with the cake.

González: Do you eat like half the cake? I feel like I would have just eaten the whole thing.

Mohammed: No, I got it. I got the whole cake with me home.

González: Ok, good.

Nunes: I have to wonder: is this the breaking point for Mohammed? Like after he’s arrested, beaten, and labeled as a terrorist, and then finally freed, does he start thinking about ways to leave Syria?

González: You would think so, but no. Mohammed goes right back to work as a physician. And I ask him about that, how he feels about this war that’s still going on today, 7 years after he spent 5 months in prison on terrorist charges.

Mohammed:  You are frustrated when you have hope. That things could become better. So you become frustrated because things are not getting better. When you lose that hope. Totally. You're not frustrated anymore. So I am beyond that point. 

González: When did you lose that hope?

Mohammed: After the chemical attack on the rural Damascus in 2013 when more than 1000 people got killed instantly in couple hours just less than five kilometers away from my home. And no one did anything.

Nunes: I remember that attack. And all of the news coverage, showing these horrific images of seemingly innocent people dying in the most gruesome ways. Children, too. And it was this attack that actually made the US intervene in the Syrian conflict.

González: Yeah, President Obama gave a speech on national TV a few days after the attack, comparing it to Nazi gas chambers. 

Nunes: Where is Mohammed in all of this? Is he still a first responder?

González: At the exact moment of the attack, he’s asleep, because they did it in the early hours of the morning. And no one was allowed in or out of the attack area. He says he spent the next days just trying to comprehend how something so horrible could happen.

Nunes: So, is this the thing, the straw that breaks the camel’s back for Mohammed to finally leave Syria?

González: Not yet. He’s engulfed in his job as a physician. Think about it: he’s been training for this job his whole life, and now, he’s more needed than ever. 

Nunes: And, from what I understand, Mohammed has some things going on in his personal life.

González: Yeah! He meets his future wife in 2013. She’s also a doctor. And, speaking from experience, she’s amazing. But she didn’t want to be interviewed for this story

Mohammed: Yeah. I mean we married in 2000.... I mean in July. What is it true sixteen or seventeen. 

González: I’ll edit this part out.

Mohammed: This is terrifying. This is not the kind of threats I'm able to deal with.

González: Jokes aside, it’s pretty lovely that Mohammed found someone to share his life with during such a trying time in his life. 

Nunes: Yeah, I mean, it’s striking how resilient he is. And how, even though he’s given up hope in some ways, he’s still going forward with his life.

González: Right, and he goes on like this for years. He even has a slight career change. His wife is a practicing physician. He works with humanitarian aid groups. The war continues, but they’re okay, until he learns he’s going to be drafted.

Mohammed: For every male in Syria, he need to go into forced conscription unfortunate military service that is indefinite at the moment. And I didn't want to do that in any way. That would be like its worse than suicide because I will be forced to do things that I don't want to do. And there was there would be no other option. 

González: And in Syria, you can never leave the military once you’re in it. And soldiers are forced to commit war crimes.

Nunes: The same war crimes Mohammed has been fighting against for years. 

González: Exactly. And Mohammed’s two younger brothers had already left the country to avoid their conscription. Mohammed realizes, he can’t stay home. This is the breaking point.

Mohammed: So I start preparing for leaving the country. 

González: At the same time, there’s window of opportunity. His new interest in public health gives him access to a world of schools and scholarships. He finally has a good enough reason to come to the US.

Mohammed:I became more interested in life describing population health how people living through conflict, for like population such as Syria. I wanted to get that tools that kind of skills to help me do that and public health was the answer for that. 

González: He applies to a bunch of schools and programs around the world. Plans A-Z. And winds up getting in to Brown University and getting an approved student visa just in time for the 2017-2018 school year. Mohammed finally leaves Syria.

Nunes: So, after all of that: burying his mother, witnessing the Syrian uprising, going to prison for trying to save protestors’ lives, it’s the draft that forces Mohammed to leave his home.

González: Yeah, and he’s not exactly happy about it. 

Mohammed: The whole issue of leaving the country and going to anywhere was frustrating. If this forced conscription law was not there, probably we wouldn't be leaving the country. We are really doing well on every level. It wasn't about like getting better life or getting better education. It was, the core reason was just because I didn't want it to commit anything bad after everything I did. 

González: And when Mohammed and his wife board their plane for the US, they know that their destination is a hotbed of anti-immigration politics and discrimination against Muslim people from the Middle East.

Nunes: Yeah, it’s the summer of 2017, and President Trump has just signed Executive Order 13769, or the Muslim ban, which specifically targets refugees from Syria. That’s a scary time for someone legally considered a terrorist to enter the US.

González: Yeah, I can’t imagine. But Rhode Island and SE Massachusetts have a pretty established Syrian community that dates back over a hundred years. That led to a lot of Syrian refugees to be resettled here. So, Mohammed can find other Syrians to hang out with, he can buy familiar foods to cook, and he can go to some amazing Syrian restaurants.

González: I’m sitting in Aleppo Sweets, a Syrian restaurant close to Brown. It’s run by a Syrian family. When Mohammed got here, he ordered a big pot of tea in Arabic. Now, we’re sitting in the corner, next to a small waterfall. 

González:Why do you like coming to Aleppo sweets? 

Mohammed: It’s have the identity. It's have the home identity...Just the sound you are hearing now…

González: He’s saying that the sound of the water, mixed with the smell of baklava and the murmurs of Arabic reminds him of home. And that’s a word he’s been wrestling with lately. 

Mohammed: In the beginning, maybe it was just about place, about food, about music about, like, culture. I think that it changed. Now I’m more, I’m more kinda leaning forward on the people.

González: So, as Mohammed moves to New York City in a few weeks to start this new chapter in his life, he’s not worried about feeling unwelcome. Because home is in the people who make you feel like you belong and the ones you carry with you from one home to another. 

González: But do you have plans for building a family in the United States. 

Mohammed: I hope so. Yes. 

González: And what would you what would you tell them about everything you just told me? 

Mohammed: I would try to tell them everything. Maybe when they have lie when they are old enough to understand what I did. I think it's a source of strength, at least for me. It helped me make my future decisions. And whenever I'm faced with a very challenging situation, it's good to know that you have been much worse before. I know that it's not the end, because I face what could be the end. So I want them, I want my family to have this kind of strength in them, somehow.

González: They definitely will. 

Mohammed: Let's see. 

Nunes: Mosaic is a production of the Public’s Radio, edited by Sally Eisele with production help from James Baumgartner and Aaron Selbig. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio. I’m Alex Nunes.

González: And I’m Ana González. Thanks for listening. 

Support for this podcast comes from Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at Carnegie.org.