Father's Day 2013: Why My Syrian Father is the True 'Man Of Steel'

A few weeks ago when I was staying in my friend’s apartment in Washington, D.C. while finishing up a spring internship, I received a text message from my mother telling me that I should tune into CNN for Christiane Amanpour's segment. I turned on the television and found my father, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, reporting live from Gaziantep in Turkey right on the Syrian border, detailing evidence of chemical weapons use by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

This same evidence would then be used weeks later in conjunction with British, French, and Israeli intelligence reports and global pressure to convince President Obama to support the Syrian opposition, in a conflict that has claimed over 100,000 Syrians. When I talked to my mother later I found out that she and my father had both been smuggled into Syria to visit a field hospital set up by my father’s organization, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). I was shocked to learn this, as I was not informed beforehand that my mother would be attempting to enter Syria. I knew this was definitely not the first time for my father. See, to me, my father is what fathers everywhere are to their children — Superman.

Long before the Syrian revolution began in 2011, my father has been my inspiration for public service. He was active in the American Muslim community since he came to Chicago in his early twenties to complete his medical training. Back in the day when he met my mother, who came to Chicago when she was 10-years-old from the same city of Homs, Syria, my father was volunteering on the traffic committee for the Mosque Foundation in the southwest Chicago suburbs. Years later, he would become the president of that mosque. At that time he was one of the founders of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), and when our family went to Syria every summer, we participated in its annual conference where members of the sizable Syrian American medical community led workshops for Syrian medical students and donated to build up Syria’s health care services in private hospitals and local charities. 

When the revolution began, the Syrian American community had to make difficult choices, and when my father voiced his opinion in its first weeks that killing on all sides needed to be condemned, that there needed to be an attempt for dialogue in Syria, that this conflict was going to go on for a long time, the Syrian American community where we lived alienated him and painted him as a supporter of the Assad regime (especially because he was Assad's classmate, back in the day). I remember sitting in the town-hall meeting for the Syrian American Council (SAC) in Chicago where my father was literally booed out — it is a picture I remember quite vividly.

How he reacted to this is what I will remember forever. He went on to reform SAMS from within, after pro-Assad members on the SAMS Foundation board resigned due to the fact that, to them, sending medical aid to the Syrian people who were being killed by Assad forces was equivalent to supporting the opposition. But my father made sure that SAMS adhered to the physician’s Hippocratic oath. SAMS became one of the first NGOs working directly in the Syrian refugee camps, sending doctors there every month. Aside from visiting the camps and entering Syria, my father was also flying to Washington, D.C. to attend meetings with the National Security Council, the State Department, and USAID to push for U.S. action in Syria and to consult on U.S. humanitarian policy. When he was back in Chicago, he would go to work at his private medical practice, and attend meetings at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC) where he was still serving his second term as chairman and was expanding the Chicago Muslim community’s civic engagement and interfaith footprint throughout the state of Illinois.

After all of this he still found time to be with his family. He still found time to talk to me, to make sure I was working hard enough in college. When I saw the CNN headline of his interview reading “American doctor gives proof of chemical weapons use in Syria,” I thought, "perfect title." My father is a person who embodies everything an American is: one who practices what he told me when I was much younger, to “think globally, act locally.”

This is a man who Skypes with his parents still in Syria and then goes to speak at an immigration rally in downtown Chicago. He knows that it is God that keeps everyone alive, from his parents in Homs to his children to himself — all we can do is honor the blessing of life by doing our job. Today I want to honor him: Happy Father’s Day to my hero.