'We're Part of Both Worlds': Syrian Americans Feel Pride, Conflict for Both Homelands

PHOTO: Syrian AmericansPlayABC News
WATCH Syrian Americans Feel Pride, Conflict for Both Homelands

Just days before the world waited to see if the United States would take military action against Syria, several Syrian Americans talked with ABC News about how the conflicts in their motherland have affected their lives here.

"When I'm here in the United States, I'm a minority," said Salem Samra, a 33-year-old plastic surgeon. "I'm Arab-American, a Muslim. When I'm in Syria, I'm a minority, I'm an American. We're part of both worlds."

There are about 300,000 Syrian Americans living in the United States, with large communities in Los Angeles, Detroit, New York City and New Jersey.

Sarah Gualtieri is the director of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She focuses on the migration of Syrians to the United States, and said she has noticed that social and political tensions in Syria have made their way here.

"People have lost friends because of disagreements," Gualtieri said. "It's a topic of debate at dinner tables."

Yasmin Samra, 31, was born in Syria and later became an American citizen. Today, she is a pharmacist who has two young children with her husband, Salem Samra. She and several other Syrian Americans who now live in New Jersey talked about the chaos in the Middle East.

"This country is my country and [Syria is] my country. … It's part of your identity," Yasmin said. "We need the regime to leave so that we can start rebuilding our country," referring to Syria.

Salem was one of four boys born in the U.S. to Syrian immigrant parents. Just this past May, he and his younger brother Maher, a 30-year-old banker, went on a service mission to help Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Salem said he remembers each of the people he met. "The last patient that I operated on was a young girl. I think she was 8 years old. Beautiful, light eyes. She lost her leg above the knee and she had a shrapnel wound to her hand such that her thumb was scarred into her palm."

He said he was proud to have made a difference in her life. "We operated on her. We got her hand opened."

"I know if I was living in a refugee camp ... I wish someone would help me. And these people need help," Maher Samra said. "I made a point when I was at the refugee camps in Jordan to ask everybody I met, 'What's your name?' Because even though I knew I couldn't remember it, it was important to me that they knew they were important."

Their father, Dr. Said Samra, 64, is also a surgeon. He left Syria 38 years ago, and said he fears for his family and friends back home, living among the constant threat of violence.

"There is more than 100,000 people that have died," he said. "My classmate that I grew up with was taken into custody about nine month ago. He disappeared. … Then his family was called and were told to come pick up his body." He said they were given no explanation as to how he died.

Assad Jebara, another Syrian American living in New Jersey, said he was making frequent trips to Syria for his garment business just two years ago. He even had dealings with Syria's president, Bashar Assad, and met him "on more than one occasion," he said. Jebara said he got the impression that Assad is not calling the shots by himself.

"He's controlled by a circle of uncles," Jebara said. "He's aware. He told them to do whatever is necessary to prevail. There's no difference between Saddam Hussein and Assad family. The name vary but they acted the same brutality and they must prevail at any cost."

Most Americans seem reluctant to support major military involvement, worried about the U.S. entering another conflict after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But some Syrian Americans that ABC News spoke to said they supported the U.S. taking action.

"As the leader of the free world … I believe it's our responsibility to act," Salem Samra said. "Martin Luther King said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,' and that applies, 100 percent, to this situation. And it's our duty to act. And I think if Martin Luther King was alive he would be whispering to his friend, Barack Obama, 'You need to do something about this.'"

Still, other Syrian Americans who spoke to ABC News weren't as sure. Muhammed Murtada, a cafe owner in Brooklyn who emigrated 30 years ago from Syria, said he doesn't have a problem with President Assad.

"I wish the U.S. doesn't make any war with my country," he said. "It's nobody's business about what going on over there."

Rabbi Elie Abadie, also a Syrian-American, is the founding rabbi of Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in New York City, which caters to over 650 member families. He said he believes U.S. involvement in Syria won't help the situation there "at all."

"To turn that country into another Libya, another chaotic place, it will become a country of lawlessness and detrimental to U.S. interests," Abadie said, noting that even with precision strikes, the lives of thousands of innocent civilians could be at risk.

But Maher Samra said President Obama and the international community may have a larger regret. "It's going to be not having acted sooner," he said.