This 2009 photo shows Hadi Alshammaa a U.S. citizen living in Syria. His family in Toledo, Ohio, are concerned that Hadi, now 16, has been abducted by government security forces in Damascus, Syria.
The Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on its people has taken a heart-stopping personal twist for two Toledo-area siblings.
Since Tuesday, Adnan and Hamzah Alshammaa have been anxiously awaiting news of their younger brother, 16-year-old Hadi, who the family believe was abducted this week by the Syrian military.
Hadi, a U.S. citizen born in Indiana, lives in the Syrian capital of Damascus with his mother. But on Monday night, after venturing out to a cell phone store, the boy reportedly did not return.
Friends accompanying Hadi told his family they had been followed by several men in an unmarked vehicle. Panicked, the teenagers began to run away, but the men caught up with them and snatched Hadi off the street, his brothers said they were told.
Now, fully aware of the thousands of deaths and disappearances reported since President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown began last March, the family is terrified of what might have happened to Hadi. They described the high school student as a peaceful, studious boy who dreams of becoming a doctor, and said he has had no involvement in the anti-government protests and militant uprisings sweeping the country.
“I hope for the best, but I see what’s going on on TV. There’s blood on the streets and unfortunately no one’s doing anything about it,” said Hamzah Alshammaa, 26, who grew up in Sylvania, studied at the University of Toledo, and now works in Kuwait. “This is my brother. He’s a U.S. citizen. People can now see the ripple effect. That one individual is not a number. It’s a human being who has hopes and dreams.”
Hamzah Alshammaa has set up a Facebook page seeking the safe return of his brother Hadi.
Adnan Alshammaa, 24, a finance student at UT, was in shock Wednesday as he contemplated his brother’s disappearance.
“I’ve heard stories of it before, but it was nothing I’d ever expected,” he said.
The brothers have set up a Facebook page calling for Hadi’s safe return. By Wednesday, the page had more than 500 members, and an accompanying petition requesting help from the American government had been signed by 206 people from across the United States and overseas.
The family said they had reported Hadi’s disappearance to the U.S. Department of State. A call to the department Wednesday was not returned.
It’s unclear why Syrian authorities would possibly target a 16-year-old boy. The chilling reality is that abduction of citizens, including children, has become common under Assad’s regime, said Ovamir Anjum, an expert on the Middle East and chair of Islamic Studies at UT’s department of philosophy.
“Unfortunately, it is happening. In the earlier days of the protests there were cases of some innocent 10 and 12-year-old boys that were abducted by the security services and just so brutally tortured, and returned to their families to make an example of them,” Mr. Anjum said. “We all saw it and it was absolutely horrifying. I’m not surprised [by the potential of Hadi’s abduction], although I’m hopeful and praying this does not turn out this way.”
These days, Mr. Assad’s government is embroiled in an all-out military assault on key centers of resistance, particularly the city of Homs, where the regime vowed Wednesday to “cleanse” a district controlled by rebels. However, abductions have continued in other parts of the country such as Damascus, where anti-government rumblings are pervasive but have not yet resulted in armed revolt, Mr. Anjum said.
“The government is trying to send a message: Don’t even think about it,” the professor explained.
According to the United Nations, more than 7,500 people have been killed in Syria since the uprisings began last year. Tens of thousands more have disappeared or been displaced. The international community has called on President Assad to end the violence and step down, but he has refused to relinquish power.
Fear for family members in Syria has become constant for relatives living in the United States, said Nora Alfaham, a Toledo office manager. Ms. Alfaham, who has extended family in Syria, said many expatriates in the Toledo and southeast Michigan areas have reported not being able to reach relatives in Syria or have had friends killed. Even when they do get through to family and friends in Syria, it is difficult to find out what is going on because people are terrified government spies are listening in, she said.
“You feel very, very helpless,” she said. “I know everyone is praying all the time.”
Ms. Alfaham and others in the local Syrian community plan to hold a demonstration Sunday in support of their besieged countrymen.
The protest, which is to be held at 12:30 p.m. at the corner of Talmadge Road and Sylvania Avenue, is also aimed at raising awareness of events in Syria, Ms. Alfaham said.
The Facebook page calling for Hadi’s safe return can be found at facebook.com/groups/193968634041636/.
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett