Shariff Abdallah, 38, is a Syrian American Christian who came to the United States in 2013 with his now wife, Aliaa Sanadeki, 33, a Syrian and Muslim. Facing increasing instability in Syria, and unable to be married there because Aliaa is Muslim and Shariff, a Christian, they made the difficult decision to move to the U.S. As the world focuses on Syria and the unfolding refugee crisis, Shariff and Aliaa offer a small glimpse (through their eyes) of life on the front lines of a difficult issue.
DN- Tell us why you came to the United States from Syria.
Shariff- I came here in the 80’s. I was an American citizen who was nationalized in Syria. My mother was an American. We went to Syria. It was great times, great life, we had a family business. The refugee crisis didn’t start today. It was going on since the 1900s, then another influx in the 60’s and 70’s, then another in the 80’s during the Lebanese/Israeli war. That is what brought us here. The crisis today is very similar-there is a war in our country, in the surrounding areas-and people are leaving their home. In 2010, I decided to go back to Syria. The economy was doing great, better than here. I had been living in New York City. I decided to open my own business and went to Syria. It was great and then the situation happened and came to Damascus. We lived three years under scrutiny and direct fire from the oppositions. We made the decision to start our lives here (we were engaged there). It was with a heavy heart. I left everything here to start a new life there, so to leave there and start over again wasn’t easy, but it was easier for me than her because I used to live here and I have people here. I know family. Aliaa came because of me.
Aliaa- I met Shariff in 2010, and the second time in 2011 when he decided to move to Syria to Damascus. We got engaged in 2012. We had no choice but to leave. It was difficult for me, it is still difficult. I moved here in July 2013.
DN- What was everyday life in Syria like for you?
Aliaa- In Damascus, we have to live like normal life. We go out and live our life.
Shariff- Before the war, it was similar to New York City, L.A.-not like Allentown. It doesn’t even resemble it. It was metropolitan, great restaurants, night clubs. Now, the mindset, the economy isn’t the same, there are still cafe’s etc, but it is not the same. People have no choice but to keep living their life. It is not as bad as the media would portray but it is bad because it is a green zone. If you leave that area, it is a wild west of sorts.
DN- Were you ever in a position where you felt afraid?
Shariff- Yes, we were. It was dangerous even in the city. We were all frightened. We knew that we had to leave the home, live our life, but at that time there were kidnappings, gunfire, mortar shells raining down on us, car bombings, truck bombings…We definitely feared for our life a lot more than today.
DN- How were you received when you arrived here in America?
Shariff- For me, it was just like coming home. I haven’t lived in Allentown since 1994, but nobody knew that I was even gone. I never felt I was received any differently.
Aliaa- It’s just like a new life, a new culture. It is different than the way I used to be. Sure, I felt different but I felt welcomed.
Shariff- We came, not considered refugees, but what is a refugee? It is someone fleeing their country to be in a safer situation than what it is in a war torn country. I don’t feel like a refugee, but at the end of the day, we didn’t come because this was her dream. So many people left, they went to Lebanon…Europe….the middle class was wiped out. The wealthy closed their businesses, went to Dubai. Most of my family didn’t even leave. They went to surrounding villages. But a lot of people in poverty had no where to go.
Third world countries exist based on, how can I say this? We see America, we think that everyone has a home, everyone is taken care of. The middle class is working, spending money. But we don’t look at the ghetto’s in America- Detroit, Chicago, the inner cities…the housing that is provided by the government. Other countries don’t have that, they don’t have the resources. A lot of these people that are fleeing, have lived a bedouin life, in tents, in shacks. Those are the first thing that go, you can’t protect yourself in a couple tents, you have to move, to flee.
It’s not like moving people from a home in a city to another city. These people didn’t even have a home. I can’t say that I can understand what they have gone through, but the situation has become so bad, that people can’t live that way any longer,
“Syria is one of the most religious melting pots, there are different sects of different religions. Society has painted a bad picture and the media doesn’t help.”
DN- What is the relationship like between Muslims and Christians in Syria today?
Shariff- I was brought up in a culture where everyone is friends. We all had friends who are different religions, and different sects. We never heard “Stay Away.” We went to visit people, we never asked. Most people think that Syria is all Muslims, that the middle east is all Muslim but it is not. Until recently, most people did not know where Syria was on the map.
Syria is one of the most religious melting pots, there are different sects of different religions. Society has painted a bad picture and the media doesn’t help.
Aliaa- In my experience, I have friends from different religions. We never felt that anything affects our friendships, after the war happened, and after our engagement. Since I came here, it is like no one can believe that I am Muslim. The Christians here seem more conservative than in Syria.
DN- What is your opinion on the current government in Syria?
Shariff- We are in support of the government. No government is perfect. I’m definitely more of a Democrat. I don’t know what the situation will be in a few years. We have to be in support today, because of the situation there. If any country or any people came in to the U.S. and attacked, you now would be a supporter of the government. It would be your duty to support the government against outside sources.
Aliaa- In my opinion, America is the reason for what happened to our country. Everyone who supports the Syrian government thinks that.
Shariff- America’s foreign policy throughout the region, if you read and see enough on both sides, you will know the truth. If you watch Fox news and only Fox news, you won’t know the real story.
The region has been a hotbed for many years. There definitely has been an Israeli-American alliance. Iran is a pseudo-super power that frightens many. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are very rich countries. They want more say in who gets the oil and the natural gas. It has to do with the natural resources and who wants to be a superpower.
We had world wars…the Vietnam war. Americans fought and died. How do we now have a proxy war where Americans won’t die? We recruit, train and fund, and don’t care if they are 100 percent on our side or not. We aren’t losing people, we are gonna scare everyone.
Libya, Yemen, Syria…all these countries are all at war. There are no American troops on the ground, but there were in Iraq in 2011. Politically it doesn’t make sense.
DN- What do you think the U.S. and the world can do to change the situation in Syria right now?
Shariff- They have to change their policy. I like dialogue. Bring everyone to the table. What they need to do is get Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, France, the EU, and come up with a solution for that whole region. Until then you will have bloodshed, hypocrisy, hatred and its just getting worse and worse. They don’t want other countries to be a powerful country in that region.
They want to be number one and everyone else number two. Why is it when a bomb goes off that kills 120 people in France, that people are outraged but when thousands and thousands of people are killed everyday… buildings are being leveled in the Middle East…
If you ever had to face a terrorist, if you ever saw what we saw…We saw fear so many times, you just see it in their faces, these people are animals.
DN- How do the Syrians you know feel about ISIS?
Aliaa- Most people absolutely hate those people, they destroyed the country. Those people don’t represent anything we believe, any religion. A lot of Syrians believe that ISIS is a tool created by America.
Shariff- Everyone has an opinion, no country is perfect. Assad was put in power by the states and has been in power many years. We get promised all these things, and we don’t get them here. We are pretending that we have freedom. We have freedom of press, yes, but go out and protest and see what happens, you get hit over the head, just like any other country. That’s what confuses me.
The majority of Muslims do not support ISIS. For me what is dangerous about this situation, there are a lot of Christians here, a lot of Muslims coming in and we don’t know what is behind that. We have to find out what is coming in before there is backlash. They are not acclimating themselves and something is going to happen. I would like to see what is going on in their community, see how they feel.
DN- As an inter-faith couple, what religion will you raise any children you might have?
Aliaa- I would raise the children Christian, we feel the children must be lead by their father. And I feel they would be safer to be Christian rather than Muslim.
Shariff- The only reason she says that (about raising the children Christian) is because of the situation in the world today, but if you teach them love and how to be a good person, they are going to be fine.
About the Contributors
Dawn Ouellette Nixon
Dawn Ouellette Nixon is the Editor of the Elucidator. She also pens the "ask" interview column and the occasional feature. She lives on College Hill in…
Cassandra Srager is a freelance photographer currently based in the Lehigh Valley area and a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts of New York City.