Arabic peace songs and bullhorn-led chants of “Congress, Congress, what do you say? Chemical weapons are not OK!” greeted members of Congress as they returned to Capitol Hill from their month-long recess.
Syrian refugees and U.S. citizens with ties to the Middle Eastern nation converged on the Hill Monday. One large rally called on Congress and President Barack Obama to take a stronger stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while a smaller group asked that the U.S. not intervene in their homeland.
Syrian citizen Sumaya Hamadmad traveled from Columbus, Ohio, to join the boisterous pro-intervention rally that started at noon at the northeast corner of the Capitol.
“We are not looking for something limited; we want to get rid of this regime,” said Hamadmad. Her family fled to the United States from Syria in 1980, when she was only two years old, to escape President Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current leader. More than 10 members of her family were slaughtered two years later in the 1982 massacre of Hama, which the Syria president ordered to crush a Sunni rebellion.
Hamadmad, who wore a black hijab topped with a “Free Syria” baseball cap, said she has been a passionate supporter of the rebel fighters since the revolution began in March 2011.
“Now the time has come for me to get rid of the regime and go back to my country. More than 100,000 people have been killed. ... This needs to stop. We can’t keep our silence anymore,” she said, clutching one corner of a collage of photos of dead women and children. “We are hoping that this limited strike would really weaken the regime, increase the defection, at least get rid of the chemical weapons they had and then hopefully the Free Syrian Army would continue the job.”
Behind her, 250 protesters of all ages who traveled by bus from their homes in Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Ohio waved Syrian flags and echoed the chants of a woman yelling into a bullhorn: “Hey Assad, what do you say? How many kids did you kill today?”
One man held a portrait of Assad defaced with an Adolf Hitler-esque mustache. Many carried gruesome signs like Hamadmad’s, showing rows or piles of dead bodies. Another man weaved through the crowd in a bright yellow Hazmat suit, his face covered by a matching gas mask.
Mouhammed Joumaa, a doctor from Detroit said members would have to vote their conscience on the Syria issue.
“I am 100 percent pro-peace, I don’t believe that war should be our first option, but unfortunately war is technically our last option ... absolutely no boots on the ground, I agree with that ... but you cannot let those massacres happen. When 1,400 people died in 20 seconds, that should be something that moves your emotions and you set the issues that you have aside and you make a conscious decision — do you want to help people or not?”
Joumaa is a Syrian-born U.S. citizen who has traveled to D.C. three times in the past two years to participate in protests.
Monday’s “Rally to Stop Assad’s Atrocities” was organized via Facebook. Members of the crowd nearly all said they were natives of Syria. Babies played on the laps of their mothers, most of whom had their heads covered. Some talkative protesters dispersed from the group to chat with curious tourists. A Capitol Police officer on the scene said no arrests had been made.
By 4 p.m., another, smaller Syria-related protest had developed across Constitution Avenue, on the grass by the Russell Senate Office Building. Around 75 people lounged about the site carrying signs and wearing T-shirts that read “Peace in Syria.”
Inaam Jarjous said she and the other women, men and teens, all natives of Syria, traveled from Allentown, Penn., to tell Obama and Congress to stay out.
“We are a very peaceful country,” said Jarjous, who lounged on the grass and smoked a cigarette. She was born in Syria in 1948, but has lived in the U.S. for 36 years. She last returned to her village seven years ago and recalls, “You could stay outside until 3 a.m., 4 a.m., with your children. Whenever. We are a very peaceful country.”
Jarjous choked up as she spoke about recent calls to her niece in Syria. The young woman and her family are concerned they will be the target of bombing, Jarjous said.
“We are a very peaceful country. I don’t know why Obama is supporting this. It’s not fair. We are tired. We don’t want Obama bombing our country,” she said. “How many mothers are going to cry?”