When George Akkari left Syria in 2010 to come to America and work at his cousin’s liquor shop in Morro Bay, peace reigned in his homeland. The 28-year-old described things as “very, very peaceful. Safe.”
In just two years all of that has changed. Mass protests sparked by the Arab Spring, followed by violent repression, have morphed into a bloody civil war pitting President Bashar Assad against loosely organized rebels. A once stable but authoritarian Syria is now a country wracked with violence, sectarian killing and an unclear future.
“At first, everybody in Syria was for the protests,” Akkari said. But things quickly turned violent and sectarian, he added. “Yeah, we need some things changed in Syria, but not in this way.”
Akkari, like the rest of his family in Morro Bay, is from the predominantly Christian village of Fhaylah, east of the city of Homs, in central Syria. They are among the more than 1,300 people in San Luis Obispo County of Arab descent. It is unknown how many are from Syria.
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A minority Syriac Orthodox Christian in a nation of predominantly Sunni Muslims, Akkari says his family in Syria initially supported the revolution. But now, like other local Christian Syrians, he fears the outcome of a rebel victory could turn Syria into an Islamic state because some among the rebels preach such a goal.
Religion and politics were red lines in Syria that no one crossed, Akkari said. Now he and others fear Christians and other minorities will get caught in the middle of a bloody war.
“We do not support anyone with guns,” said Ben Akkari, 31, George Akkari’s cousin. While Ben Akkari has no love for the regime — there was never “100 percent freedom” in Syria, he conceded — he would take Assad’s secular authoritarian rule over a religious state. “We know Assad. We have lived under his family’s regime for 40 years,” he said. “We have never been bothered because we are Christian.”
Assad, who comes from the minority Alawite Shiite sect, took power in 2000 after his father, the longtime leader of the country, died.
The United States and a number of its allies have officially recognized the Syrian opposition, while designating as terrorists certain al-Qaida-linked Islamic fundamentalist militias active in Syria.
While much of the violence has bypassed George Akkari’s hometown, his family has not been spared.
The husband of Akkari’s aunt was killed on his way to work. And more recently, a family friend was kidnapped. His captors want $500,000 for his freedom.
Another local Syrian Christian said he steers clear of the politics in Syria.
“I’m on nobody’s side. All I care about is my family,” said a Pismo Beach Syrian Christian from
Musharfa. He did not want to give his name because he fears endangering his family. “I’m really, really worried about them.”
So far about 20,000 have been killed in the conflict, and more than 500,000 have fled the nation as refugees, according to the U.N.