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In Old Lyme, Syrian conflict hits close to home

By Greg Smith

Publication: The Day

Published September 29. 2012 4:00AM   Updated September 29. 2012 7:18PM

The bombing Tuesday of a building occupied by pro-government militias in Damascus, Syria, was not the first in the city since the start of the 18-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

But its close proximity to the home of the sister of Syrian native and Old Lyme resident Nada Awwa has added to her growing concern that the area is becoming increasingly unsafe for her family.

Just two streets separate her sister's home from the recent bombing by rebels, part of a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee the country.

"I called as soon I heard," Awwa said of Tuesday's bombing. "(Awwa's sister's) son was about to take the bus to school … just before the bombing."

Luckily, Awwa said, no one was hurt, but her sister told her gunfire erupted shortly after the bombing and continued sporadically throughout the day. Roads were closed and residents were forced to stay inside their homes.

Residents' movements in the city are already hindered by checkpoints and stops by government soldiers asking for identification.

Awwa moved to the United States nearly 20 years ago, at the age of 24. Lately, it has become a daily ritual for her to wake up, turn on the television and check online for the latest Syrian news. For the past year, it has been reports of more killings.

Estimates by activists put the number at 27,000 deaths, according to the Reuters news service.

Awwa's parents and two sisters, along with extended family, all live in Damascus, where she said they are now "surrounded by events." By her count, there have been four major bombings since the start of the conflict.

"They have not been hurt so far, but it's a close call most of the time," she said. "Once it is late afternoon or early evening, everyone is at home. You don't leave because you never know what could happen."

The main concern for her sisters, homemakers with three children each, "is how to stay safe, stay alive and take care of the family."

She said they have no plans to leave.

"I urged them to leave," Awwa said. "They don't want to leave. If something happens here, they say, 'It's meant to be. We're not leaving.'"

Awwa understands, but is hoping for a resolution and perhaps some outside intervention. "I hope it will end sooner rather than later, and I hope it will be less painful and bloody than it's been," she said. "It will take some help to tip the scale with Russia and Iran giving help to the regime. It's disproportionate. You cannot compare people with light arms to an army bombing civilians. A big bully needs a bigger bully."

She stays in constant contact with family by phone or Facebook with the younger members of the family. With her parents and others, the fear of the oppressive and oftentimes brutal government is a constant, so conversations are typically limited. Awwa did not provide names of family members for their safety.

"The common belief is phones are being bugged," she said. "But with the satellite dishes and Internet, people have access to what others are saying about the conflict besides the regime. We don't say anything on the telephone. But I'm sure amongst each other they talk."

If they were to leave, Awwa's family would be among the hundreds of thousands pouring into Turkey, Jordan and other countries bordering Syria. Many have ended up in refugee camps, where they have nothing.

Awwa is helping to promote an upcoming concert at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme with proceeds going to benefit the Syrian Sunrise Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to victims of the Syrian conflict. Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali will headline the Tree of Life Concert on Nov. 3. For more information about the concert, visit www.tolef.org.

"We're here," Awwa said. "We enjoy so many things they don't have. We're just trying to help."

g.smith@theday.com

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