Syrian In California Takes Heat For Ties To Regime

Calls for regime change in Syria are making their way from Damascus to Southern California. Dr. Hazem Chehabi, the Syrian Consul General in California has close ties to Syrian President Bashar Assad and is a major donor to the University of California, Irvine. Syrian-American protesters are up in arms, calling on him to distance himself from the Syrian regime.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Syrians in this country are also pushing for change. Here in Southern California, they're focusing on one man who holds the title of honorary consul of Syria. Syrian-Americans are protesting, calling on him to distance himself from the Assad regime, something that is almost impossible because of his connection to one of Syria's darkest moments.

NPR's Amy Walters reports.

AMY WALTERS: If you're traveling to Syria, you'll need a visa. In Southern California, that means a visit to Dr. Hazem Chehabi's office in Newport Beach. In addition to being the medical director at Newport Diagnostic Center, he also volunteers as Syria's honorary consul, renewing passports and sorting out birth and death certificates for Southern California's Syrian community.

Unidentified Woman: Free, free Syria.

Unidentified Group: Free, free Syria.

Unidentified Woman: Down, down with Bashar.

Unidentified Group: Down, down with Bashar.

WALTERS: Substitute English for Arabic, this protest could be on the streets of Damascus. It's actually in Orange County, not far from Dr. Chehabi's offices.

Ammar Kahf, the rally organizer, says he's working with protesters in Syria to get Dr. Chehabi to resign from his position as consul.

Mr. AMMAR KAHF: We feel that any person with even remote connection with the regime, people being killed, they should say I'm not going to be associated with this brutal regime.

WALTERS: Dr. Chehabi is one of three honorary consuls in the U.S., but he's taking much of the heat for two reasons: his close ties to Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, and his sizable donations to the University of California, Irvine.

Ms. NOOR HASHEM: We have to question where our money is coming from and whether it's worth it.

WALTERS: Noor Hashem has family in Syria, and she's a UC graduate. University records show Dr. Chehabi gave more than $1 million to the UCI Foundation, and he has close to half a million more pledged. Hashem also insists Chehabi distance himself from the Assad regime.

Ms. HASHEM: And if not, then I would ask the UC Regents to really consider whether this is someone they want to stand behind, considering his ties to a regime that's basically massacring people.

WALTERS: This summer, Chehabi took over as chair of the UCI Foundation. He meets with University Chancellor Michael Drake regularly. Chancellor Drake declined NPR's interview requests, but offered a written statement, saying the university appreciates Dr. Chehabi's support. He also expressed outrage at the violence in Syria.

Although Dr. Chehabi agreed to meet with NPR, he refused to be recorded. He won't discuss the Assad regime, but says personally, he opposes the shooting of unarmed civilians.

Facing the Pacific Ocean in his second-floor office, Chehabi appears to be realizing the American dream. Over his right shoulder is a picture of his wife and sons here in Orange County. Above his left shoulder, a picture of his parents from Syria.

Mr. JOSH LANDIS (University of Oklahoma): His father is the contentious person.

WALTERS: Josh Landis specializes in Syria at the University of Oklahoma.

In 1982, the Syrian military flattened huge sections of the northern city of Hama, killing more than 10,000 people. Landis says Dr. Chehabi's father, General Hikmat Shihabi, was in command.

Mr. LANDIS: His father was the chief of staff of the Syrian Army under Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar al-Assad, for decades.

WALTERS: It's through family ties, though, that Dr. Chehabi and Syria's current president, Bashar al-Assad, grew up together. They still meet today.

Unidentified Man: (Chanting in foreign language)

WALTERS: Ammar Kahf continues to lead protests. He says Chehabi's concern is not enough.

Mr. KAHF: This is not a time for silent, private meetings. This is a time for action.

WALTERS: Chehabi says he will not be pressured, and will continue to serve his community as honorary consul.

Amy Walters, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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