Syrian-American Returns To Home Country To Help Train, Arm Rebels

Some Syrians living comfortably in the U.S. are understandably wracked with guilt that they can't do more to help their countrymen. Each has his own way of dealing with the situation. But now that the liberated north is easier to reach, they're starting to come back and many of them visiting parts of the country they've never seen before. We profile a Syrian-American gun enthusiast who's doing his part to arm and train the rebels.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

For nearly two years, Syrians living in the U.S. have watched their home country fall apart. Groups have organized, formed nonprofits and raised money, and some people have made more life-changing decisions. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently met up in Syria with one Syrian-American gun enthusiast. He used his vacation time to travel from California back to Syria. His plan, to help the rebels bring down the government.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: He goes by the name Abu Ahmed. He doesn't want us to use his real name or his real profession. He doesn't even want us to say the name of the village in Syria where we met him last week.

ABU AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Abu Ahmed says it was nighttime when he crossed into Syria with 16 big duffle bags full of, quote, unquote, "tactical stuff." He's cagey about what that means. His plan was to deliver the stuff to rebel fighters. He says the craziest thing was seeing part of his home country no longer under government control.

AHMED: It was like the greatest pleasure in my life that I would have no fear. I put 16 bag on this, like, right on the freeway side, open them and gave every team what he asked me to bring.

MCEVERS: Driving into Syria with more stuff to give other teams of rebel fighters, Abu Ahmed started to understand how bad the conditions really are.

AHMED: Like from the Turkish border until here, I didn't see a single light. It was dark, no power. I realized, like, how big the problem is.

MCEVERS: Then, once he got to the village, he realized not only are the conditions pretty primitive, but it's not the exciting, frontline experience he might have been hoping for. Most days are spent sitting around a smoky room with a rebel commander and his men. They don't even have enough ammunition to go out and fight.

AHMED: And if you go to see his storage and cache of weapons, I have more under my bed at home in California, honest to God. Like you - they have nothing to fight with, honest. I have been in another group. They have nothing to fight with.

MCEVERS: It's a complaint we hear a lot in Syria. The Islamist fighters are well-supported, mainly by private donors in rich Gulf countries. But these more moderate fighters, the defected soldiers and civilians who've taken up arms, have yet to get the support they say they were promised by the West and its allies. Now, in this cramped, smelly room, one injured fighter lies on his floor mattress most of the day, drinking tea and keeping warm by the gas stove. He sleeps with a grenade, just in case. Abu Ahmed is still trying to adjust.

AHMED: I don't know. I have to show you the restroom. I have to show you the restroom. It's different here than other cities. There is no running water, by the way. We are collecting the rain water. We collect the water...

MCEVERS: Abu Ahmed takes us to a storage room where he sleeps, to show us what's in those bags of tactical stuff.

AHMED: This is my bed here.

MCEVERS: And this is - OK. And this is a lot of the stuff you brought?

AHMED: This is the stuff I brought, yeah.

MCEVERS: Wow. Wind-powered generators, walkie-talkies, bullets, camouflage, laser scopes to mount on rifles, tactical vests, a handgun. Those are a couple of car batteries? Abu Ahmed even has his own assault rifle. So you brought your AR with you?

AHMED: No, no, no.

MCEVERS: Oh.

AHMED: I just have it here.

MCEVERS: So, wait, how did you - what do you mean you just have it here? How did you get it?

AHMED: I'm not going to tell you that.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: As we're walking, I realized Abu Ahmed is dressed like he just walked out of a gun catalog: cargo pants and combat boots. Do you feel like a war tourist?

AHMED: No. I feel obligated. Sitting in California kills me, just like I really can't do anything. Like, talking to Kelly every day, you know, doesn't help my people. So I have to help in a different way.

MCEVERS: Abu Ahmed is originally from the city of Hama, less than an hour's drive away. His mother wanted to see him and bring him his favorite Syrian food, but his brother decided it was too dangerous.

AHMED: So they decided to send the food with a guy to me.

MCEVERS: Needless to say, penetrating deep into rough, rebel territory is not how most Syrian-Americans do their part. For Abu Ahmed, though, it's about doing something that feels right. And right now, he says, fighting feels right.

AHMED: I always tell the guys that, yeah, we in America enjoy our liberty. But believe me, they put much more blood than we did so far. Right?

MCEVERS: In the Civil War?

AHMED: In the Civil War. So nothing comes for free. If you're going to delay it, you're going to put it out for a while. It's going to come. You have to pay blood to get your freedom.

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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