As protests in Syria continue, Syrian-American dissidents in the U.S. are increasingly faced with a troubling dilemma: Do they pursue their activism from afar - even if it places their relatives and loved ones back home in Syria at greater risk?
Radwan Ziadeh is a Syrian-American activist in Washington. Ever since the uprising in his homeland, this mild-mannered university professor has been a central figure in the Syrian opposition movement in the United States. Then last week, he got the message he had hoped never to receive.
"I get one line from my brother in Syria saying that ‘I have bad news for you, Radwan,'" Ziadeh said.
Ziadeh’s brother, Yasin, a small business owner, had been arrested after a protest in their hometown Daraa. Now, Ziadeh and his family are concerned that Yasin’s treatment in detention will be especially brutal - to pressure his activist brother in the U.S. into silence.
"This is why I always have some guilt that I have put my family in some pressure and always they been interrogating my mother and my brothers, trying actually to use them as a hostage to push me to be quiet," Ziadeh said.
Ziadeh is not alone. Khalid Saleh is a spokesman for the Syrian-American Council based in Chicago. He said Syrian-American dissidents are now thinking about how their activism in the U.S. may jeopardize the safety of their families back home.
"A few of us also were contacted by our family members in Syria telling us ‘Please cool things down because you are putting us at risk.’ The ‘mokhaberat’ - the secret security forces in Syria -- have reached out to a few of our family members, asked them questions about our activities here in the States, trying to get more information about us," Saleh said.
Some of those relatives have already paid a price for their family members’ activism in the U.S.
Malek Jandali is a Syrian-American composer and performed at a protest rally outside the White House in July.
A few days later, he said his elderly father and mother were attacked in their home by government security forces. "She was asking them ‘Why are you hitting me? What’s going on?’ and they kept referring to me and to my concert and how I stand by the people and how I mock the government and they kept beating her and telling her ‘We’re going to teach you how to raise your kids.'"
Reports of similar incidents have reached the U.S. State Department. They have raised the U.S concern with the Syrian embassy in Washington over allegations that Syrian-Americans as well as their families in Syria may have been harassed and intimidated by supporters of the Syrian government.
“Everyone has the right to have their opinion be heard without fear of repercussions, without fear of arrest, and without fear of their families being attacked. And any country that seeks to do those types of things to its citizens is completely inappropriate and acting outside of international norms and that’s unacceptable,” said Andy Halus, a State Department spokesman.
But as pressure on the Assad regime grows, activists like Ziadeh say they continue to receive threatening emails and text messages nearly every day.
"He’s threatening that ‘If your brother get exit from the prison I will kill him,'" Ziadeh said reading a threatening text message from his cell phone.
"Every minute I ask [my] self ‘Where is he right now? What is he doing inside the prison? Does he get good food? Does he get water? How is his family doing?’…This feeling make me very nervous every day, day by day, because I cannot do more," Ziadeh said.
Other Syrian-American activists also say that while they themselves are far from Syrian police and prisons - they never forget that each new protest could bring retribution on their loved ones back home.