The sounds of war infiltrate the phone line when Dr. Bassam Altajar calls his family in Syria. Mortars, rockets, artillery shells and fighter jets rumble like a deadly thunderstorm behind the familiar voice on the other end of the line.
“It’s scary,” said Altajar, 51, a Sarasota cardiologist who grew up in Syria and has three sisters still living in Damascus, the embattled Middle Eastern state’s capital city. He speaks softly in a subtle Arabic accent: “They are shaken and very afraid. They never imagined this would happen to Syria.”
Altajar, known as Sam to his friends, calls his sisters at least once a week, he said, and sometimes every day. He fears for their safety in the middle of a civil war that has already claimed more then 100,000 lives and recently included a chemical weapons attack that, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, killed more than 1,400 civilians.
“Assad’s army has no remorse,” Altajar said, referring to Syria’s besieged dictator, Bashar al-Assad. “You can’t imagine what they are doing to their own people. It’s brutal.”
At first, Altajar said, his sisters were terrified as the sounds of the war crept closer to the section of Damascus where they live. They couldn’t sleep at night; they were constantly afraid of an errant rocket or missile killing them or their family in the night. Now they’re able to sleep through the macabre symphony of Assad’s army at war, Altajar said. When they wake up, they take a breath, look around and say, “OK, they didn’t get me.”
Twenty years ago, Altajar, 51, moved with his wife, Eiman, who is also from Syria, to the U.S. to pursue his medical career. He said it took him six years to obtain a U.S. visa because relations “have never been good between the U.S. and Syria.” But the father of three said he was fed up with the police state of the Syrian regime, then run by the current dictator’s father, Hafez al-Assad.
“There was no freedom,” he said, referring to the 43-year-old Assad dynasty.
After living in South Dakota for six years as part of a medical outreach program to an underserved community, Altajar and his wife eventually decided on Sarasota as their permanent home and the place they wanted to raise their three children.
“My wife came to visit Sarasota one year,” Altajar said. “She went out to St. Armands and walked around, and told me, ‘We have to live here; the area is so nice.’”
Altajar, who still owns a house in Damascus and another in a suburb outside the capital, said he misses his family in Syria, but is happy to be free from what he describes as the “brutally oppressive regime” of Bashar al-Assad.
“My family in Syria thought I’d come to the U.S. and train as a doctor and go back,” Altajar said. “But, every time I went back, I realized more and more that I couldn’t settle down there. This regime is brutal, and I can’t keep my mouth shut.”
Altajar said his wife’s brother, whose house was destroyed in a rocket attack, is living in one of Altajar’s homes in Syria.
The Sarasota cardiologist said his newfound sense of freedom in the U.S. made the oppression in Syria seem increasingly shocking each time he returned to his homeland. Eventually, Altajar said, he began to speak out against the regime — an action, he claimed, that landed some of his family members in jail.
“The regime knows that if they can’t control me, they can control my family,” Altajar said. “They’ve done it multiple times; they put my sister and my brother in jail for things I’ve said.”
Despite the oppressive Assad regime, the father of three said it was important for his children to know their heritage. Altajar said he took his children on 10 to 12 trips to Syria before the start of the civil war. He also said his wife spent two to three months in Syria at his homes in and around Damascus every summer before the war. Altajar and his family have not returned to Syria since the war began.
“Sometimes people take things for granted in America,” Altajar said. “Life here is easy. Life is good. But, when my kids would come back from Syria, they would tell me, ‘Dad, we are so fortunate.’ They are very happy.”
Altajar, a Sunni Muslim, said he supports the rebels in their fight against Assad, who is part of the Alawite sect of Islam.
Altajar is also in favor of U.S. military strikes, which are being debated in Congress, but he understands the reluctance of many Americans to become entangled in another conflict in the Middle East. Altajar added that there are about 10 Syrian families living in Sarasota, and not all of them are sympathetic to the revolution.
Compared with the news from his three sisters, Altajar said U.S. media coverage of the Syrian civil war has been relatively fair, but he said the opposition to Assad comprises both moderate, secular elements, as well as foreign jihadists.
“Syrians don’t support al-Qaeda,” Altajar said. “The opposition is not black and white. It was good in the beginning, but they have been infiltrated by extremists. These jihadists, these people want to die, they really do. They come from everywhere, and their goal is to be martyrs.”
If Assad were to fall, Altajar said he would like to have a role in rebuilding his homeland, but he added that Sarasota is his new home, and he will never permanently return to Syria.
“Most people who come and live in the U.S. can’t go back,” Altajar said. “You miss your family and friends, but you can’t go back to that way of life. You can live there and have wealth and be comfortable — but you don’t have your own mind.”
Altajar’s sisters are living in an area still controlled by the government, and they have been spared the worst of the fighting. Altajar said the refugee camps in Jordan, now home to more than a half million Syrians, according to the U.N., would not be an option for his family if Damascus were to be sacked. The plan, rather, is to get his family into Lebanon, and then fly them out of Beirut to either Canada or the U.S.
According to the U.N., more than 2 million people have fled Syria since the civil war began, including 1 million children. The U.N. also estimates that 4.25 million people within Syria have lost their homes because of the conflict.
“Our big hope is that if Assad falls, the moderate elements will take over,” Altajar said. “We don’t want to become like Afghanistan or Somalia. We just want to rebuild our society.”