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We don't associate "heavenly" with Syria these days, but that's the word Oak Park native Marisa Glass used to describe the country she first visited in 2008.
"It was my favorite country on Earth," Glass declared. "But 40 years of citizens not being able to speak freely has produced a lot of pent-up anger."
Glass first traveled to Syria during a solo trip to the Middle East to learn Arabic. She was studying the language with American students in Jordan in January 2007 when she heard that Syria was cheaper and "more authentic." She obtained her visa and entered a country where she knew no one.
"I found a landlord in Damascus through Facebook," Glass recalled, "and I studied at the University of Damascus for a whole year." She became so proficient at Arabic, she started her own educational program called Caravan Al Sham ("sham" is a term that refers to Damascus). It was geared to American students wanting to study Arabic abroad.
The visiting students stayed in 400-year-old houses with a view of the city's principal mosque. Glass found the Syrian people to be very welcoming. "They are so kind and innocent," she said. "I was safe walking around at 4 a.m." She was also enchanted by the country's landscape.
"It's a country of snow-topped mountains, deserts, Mediterranean countryside — like you'd find in Greece or Italy — and a seacoast. It has the Euphrates River, where civilization began. There's history everywhere, Roman ruins, 5,000-year-old cities. You can dig anywhere and find artifacts."
Apart from its natural beauty, Glass believed Syria was moving in the right direction politically. President Bashar al-Assad had been educated in England and seemed influenced by western ideas. He introduced the Internet, opened up trade to other countries and promoted improvements in technology. He improved the quality of health care, education and immunization.
His "reforms" rankled his ministers, who had been appointed by his late father Hafez al-Assad. The elder Assad had grown up poor in a village where he made shoes from tires. His family belonged to the religious sect known as the Alawites. This minority religion believes in various tenets contained in the Torah, Bible and Koran.
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad led a military coup to take over the presidency. "Syria became strong allies with Russia, their only ally in the Middle East." The Russians maintain a naval base there.
He gave positions of power to his fellow Alawites and they ruled over a population that was 84 percent Muslim. "He oppressed the Muslim majority and put dissidents in underground prisons. He used torture and committed massacres that quieted the opposition." Meanwhile, the Alawites became rich and powerful. Syria has a significant Christian minority that makes up 10 percent of the population.
Bashar al-Assad was not his father's first choice as successor but his oldest son had been killed in a car accident. Nonetheless, he was taking a more enlightened approach to governing than his father until the opposition mobilized. He then reverted to his father's ways, by instituting a brutal crackdown on dissidents.
Glass was running her language program when "the Arab Spring unsettled Syria in 2011. I decided to end the program, due to the rising level of protest. People started dying, and we couldn't bring in more students for safety reasons. Then it turned into a full-blown civil war, with many people dying."
Before leaving Damascus for the states, Glass purchased an assortment of products made by families living outside the city. She filled a shipping container with these items and used them to open her store, Taja Décor, at 212 S. Marion. The store features reasonably-priced Syrian specialties, such as shawls and Bedouin pillowcases.
Oak Parkers have been very supportive of her shop, purchasing Free Trade products that directly support families in Syria. To re-stock the store, Glass ordered enough Syrian goods to fill a second shipping container. She's anxiously awaiting the arrival of this shipment, as it has been delayed by the turmoil gripping the country. She says it was on the last shipment to get out of the country.
Glass has great affection for Syria. "The Syrian people are wonderful. Some are extremists but most are trying to have democracy and freedom. They don't want to become a theocracy like Iran or Saudi Arabia."
Syria, she said, had a substantial middle class and most of the poverty was among the Bedouins, who tended to reject modern advances and conveniences. Syria has a large supply of oil, but currently it is controlled by the political elite.
She also noted that Syrians are virtually debt-free. "There are no mortgages, credit cards or bank accounts," she noted. "It was very economically stable and growing on a steady basis. Now the businesses and restaurants have shut down and they've lost a ton of tourism."
When asked what the U.S. should do about the Syrian crisis, Glass said, "We don't want another Iraq or Afghanistan. Syrians love Americans and our culture but are terrified of being occupied. It's OK for us to stay on the sidelines." Still, she wishes Syria's Middle East brothers would unite against the violence. "The Arab countries are not helping Syria."
Syria is a country that has been oppressed for centuries. For 2,000 years, it was under the heel of the Ottoman Empire. The French ruled it from 1925 to 1946. That was followed by a succession of homegrown dictators.
Glass said her customers have been very caring and concerned about Syria's plight. They feel they're helping by purchasing the country's products.
She said that locals can also help by contributing to the Red Crescent, the Syrian National Council and Doctors Without Borders.