Canton orthodontist Omar Salem canceled his patients’ appointments on March 31, 2011. Something exciting was about to happen. Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, was delivering a speech to parliament — a speech that could be the first step toward democratic reforms in Salem’s home country.
His patients and their braces could wait a few hours.
Salem was hopeful that the 40-year-old regime would change. From the couch in his Canton home, he watched Assad on television with anticipation. But after a few minutes, his hope had turned to grief.
“Somehow in my naive thinking, I thought that Bashar Assad will do something good,” Salem said. “After the speech, I cried in my car on the way to work,’’ he said, frustrated that Assad “showed no respect.”
In his speech, Assad was dismissive of the protests across Syria against his regime, calling them conspiracies. The address was one of the first signs of what was to come: months of government suppression of protestors and activists that escalated into violence on both sides and is now deemed a civil war by some.
That speech was the turning point for Salem. He had never been a very “political” person, he said, and he wasn’t against the Assad government. But now Salem actively opposes Assad, and, according to people he has worked with, he is a leader in the nonviolent fight against the regime.
Mohamad Al Bardan, a graduate student at Northeastern University, met Salem by chance at a rally last year in Copley Square. He had just emigrated from Damascus, and Salem helped him connect with the area’s Syrian community.
Salem and Al Bardan worked together on several events, including what Al Bardan called “awareness campaigns” at Northeastern and Boston University. Because he was an activist in Damascus before moving to Boston, Al Bardan said, he also knows of Salem’s help in providing people there with such tools as cameras and secure Internet connections.
“I admire him because he is a doctor; he is very busy,” he said of Salem. “It has been almost two years now and he has the same motivation and enthusiasm he had in the beginning.”
Salem said that when he was growing up in Syria, the ubiquitous portraits glorifying Hafez Assad — Bashar’s father and predecessor as the country’s president— that decorated streets and buildings were “like trees.” The corruption permeating the government was apparent, he said, but was something that faded into the background.
“I grew up hearing how bloody the regime could be, but I never saw it,” Salem said.
Salem and his wife, Zeina, moved to the United States in 2000 and to Canton in 2002.
Though he initially was not politically active in this country, Salem said, his mind was changed by the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters that began in March 2011.
“It’s one thing to steal and be corrupt; it’s another thing to be a killer,” he said.
Throughout the months of conflict, the Salems have grown accustomed to balancing the routine of everyday life with the struggle to help fellow Syrians.
On Halloween, their two sons, Hussein, 10, and Jad, 8, were bouncing around the house, eager for costumes and candy. Carved pumpkins decorated the steps of their home. Inside, the couple took turns holding their 5-month-old daughter, Maya, as they explained the roles they’ve taken on in the past year and a half to help activists in Syria and to be voices for them in the United States.
The Syrian community is spread out in Massachusetts, Salem explained, but the scattered Syrian-American families have been mostly united by the conflict in their home country.
“You always say, ‘How come nobody’s doing something about this?’ And then you realize you are that someone,” he said.
Salem’s daily routine goes like this: He wakes up around 7 a.m. and helps get his two sons off to Hansen Elementary School. He then goes to one of the offices in his practice, which has locations in Sharon, Norton, and West Bridgewater, and gets home around 5 p.m. in time for family dinner. Three or four nights each week, from about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., he works on his unofficial second job.
His Syria-related projects include talking to activists in Syria on private Facebook groups and Skype. He said the three activists he communicates with regularly are part of the “nonviolent wing” of the revolution. Salem helps provide them with Skype calling cards and satellite Internet devices to “expose what’s going on there to the media.”
“It’s amazing to talk to some of these guys and girls. They don’t understand the word fear,” Salem said. “They are the real heroes.”Continued...