Taking Refuge

Picture: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Murray

Born to Rise; Born to Bake

This post features an award-winning knafeh recipe by Oula (with a little help from her mom)

March 31, 2015

Like any other college student, Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai was in the library at the University of Maryland trying to get work done, all the while keeping Facebook open on her laptop. A certain post caught her eye, causing her to bring Facebook to the front of her screen. It was happening. On that fateful day in February 2011, the first protests in Syria were finally happening.

Just a few months earlier - beginning in December 2010 - protests had erupted in Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The so-called "Arab Spring" was underway. But, Syria had remained silent. No one was doing anything; everyone was just trying to live their normal lives.

"My family and I - I'm very proud to say - helped organize the first protest in Damascus," Oula told me. "Even though we were here, we have our network of activists inside Syria."

When I saw that first protest - and I knew that we were involved - I was like 'Oh my God, it's happening.' And, that was a turning point for me. At that moment, I felt like, 'Ok, now people on the ground understand the pain that my family and I went through six years before.'

Six years before - that was when Oula and her family came to the United States as Syrian refugees.

For six years, I was just trying to live my life here, [thinking] Syrians are just going to be under that regime and I won't ever be able to go back and it's painful, but I just need to live my life here. And then I saw them rising.

Oula recounts how 2011 was the most amazing time for her. She organized protests at the White House parallel to the protests organized in Damascus and conducted vigils when Syrians on the ground were killed by the regime's crackdown.

Today, Oula continues to be heavily involved. Just the other week, at the White House, she participated in reading the names of Syrians who perished standing up for their country. But, she admits:

Today, after four years, it's much messier. Assad is still there. The crimes are on TV, on the front page of every single newspaper…but no one is doing anything.

For Oula, neither activism nor public silence regarding Syria is new.

Born and raised into a family of activists in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Oula understood the corruption and human rights violations going on in her country since an early age. The family lost her grandfather in 1982 - before she was even born - because he spoke out against the regime, criticizing the violence going on at that time. Back then, Bashar Assad's father - Hafez Assad - ruled the country. Following violent clashes between government forces and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez ignited a massacre in the city of Hama, murdering an estimated 20,000-40,000 Syrians in 1982. The event is considered the bloodiest assault by an Arab ruler against his own people in modern times.

My grandfather was criticizing both camps, the Muslim Brotherhood and [the] Assad regime - [he was] just talking about nonviolence. He was a leader in his community. So he was taken and imprisoned like hundreds of other people, even students on campuses.

"The conflict continues from generation to generation," Oula explained.

Her mom and dad married - both activists. Her dad passed away from cancer and later her mom married another man, also an activist. Together, her mom and step-dad founded Tharwa, a human rights NGO in the early 2000s. They worked on everything from Kurdish rights to corruption to child labor all around the region - Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan. But:

This type of work inside a communist regime, a dictatorship regime, inside of Damascus on the ground, led my parents to be threatened to be killed by the regime…At some points, I thought I was going to lose my parents because of the death threats and the interrogations. It was really terrifying as an eighteen year old, feeling that my parents - the only thing I have in the world - I might lose because of the regime.

Oula recalled how her family members would always text one another when they went out, scared and never knowing who was listening or following them. Sometimes members of Assad's security services would even show up at her house or send letters, calling upon them to be investigated for various "offenses."

It didn't help that Oula's step-dad was a fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. He often traveled back-and-forth from D.C. to Damascus, further inciting the regime.

As more and more people who worked for her parent's organization were imprisoned and interrogated, her parents made the decision to shut down the NGO in Syria. Too many lives were at risk.

Though fearing for their lives, Oula and her family didn't leave Syria until 2005. The final straw came when Bashar Assad's brother-in-law, General Assef Shawkat, the deputy minister of defense and one of Assad's top security chiefs, personally interrogated Oula's parents, threatening them with death.

As described by Oula, "The big guy - the guy who could kill anyone without anybody knowing - was interrogating my parents. And, when it came to that, we immediately started trying to find a way to just leave the country."

Her family turned to the American embassy in Damascus which knew of her parents, their work, and their situation. The embassy was able to quickly provide the family a work visa since her step-dad was still on a contract with Brookings. But, even at the airport, they didn't know if they'd be able to leave.

My family was banned from traveling. They [the regime] arrest people in the airport - they arrest people anywhere. They were following us and there were individuals at the airport that were monitoring us. We didn't know if we would leave or not. But, we left. Thank God.

Oula was eighteen years old when her family left Syria as political refugees. She admits that she understood the situation, but was still angry, angry at everything, but mostly at the system.

I was questioning a lot of things, trying to understand why we had to leave if my parents disagreed with the system in my country - a corrupt system, a dictatorship. I was angry. I didn't want to leave. I came here [to America] and just kept thinking about going back.

Oula recounted an anecdote in which her parents told her, "You'll come to the U.S., try life there, and if you decide to go back, you can go back." But, naturally, Oula knew they were just trying to make her feel better. Oula told me, "The reality, of course, is you cannot go back. We're wanted by the regime. We'll be killed. So we were leaving and I didn't know if I’d ever be able to go back to Syria. That was so painful for me."

Upon arrival in the United States, Oula enrolled in a few months of English classes with the TOEFL program, then applied and was accepted to the University of Maryland. At first she wasn't sure what she wanted to study, but her questions about the world and her situation - why she had to leave Syria - led her to declare a political science major, throughout which she focused on the Middle East.

But, life was far from easy and pain continued to stab at Oula.

I went to school full-time and did part-time jobs, internships, different things. I wanted to keep my life busy. It was always so painful, so I did not want to have the free time to think about Syria. I was running away from all that pain, making myself busy, busy, busy so I'd be exhausted, go home, go to sleep, and not think about Damascus. And, now, it's even more painful because the country is totally destroyed; there is nothing left. I don't know how I can describe it.

Ironically, Oula now works full-time on Syrian issues as a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. She was drawn to this position because of the revolution - it gave her hope.

And, although she remains skeptical, she tries to be optimistic, using America as her example.

Look at this country [America] - they went through a crazy civil war. Lots of people died, many suffered. And still, unto this day, there are issues with discrimination. Not everything is perfect - no country is ever going to be perfect. But…look at this nation now. It's the example around the world for democracy and human rights…I hope that one day Syrians learn from this system. But, until we get to that level, we are paying the heavy price.

Hopeful, but not naïve, Oula continued, "I'm pessimistic about the situation today and it's gotten worse and worse, but I believe it's the beginning of a better Syria in the future. I just keep working, writing about it, doing the best I can for future generations, for my grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and for years to come."

Oula hopes to continue her education after her contract with The Washington Institute is up. This year, she will become a citizen of the United States, having just sent in her application last week. She is also working on a documentary about child refugees from Syria, which she filmed during the summer of 2013 in southern Turkey.

Reflecting on her journey, Oula summarized:

Now I'm here and it's been almost ten years. In 2011, the revolution happened. And, now it's my generation that's rising on the streets. So, in my family, it was way before I was born. Problems carried on from one generation to another, so happy memories in Syria are very few for me, to be honest, even though I miss it so much. It was mostly difficult times.

For information on Oula, visit her blog at: http://oulaabdulhamid.com/about/

I also encourage you to check out these recent publications:

Authored by Oula, "Not Alright with Syria's Alawites," in Foreign Affairs, December 2014

Co-authored by Oula, "Assad Plays America the Fool…Again," in The National Interest, March 2015

Authored by Oula's step-dad about his interrogation with Assef Shawkat, "The Day I Met Syria's Mr. Big," in The Guardian, July 2012

Oula in Washington, DC.

Oula's knafeh baking in the oven.

Oula's knafeh, baked and ready to eat.


Oula won first place in a baking contest with this recipe!

For the Knafeh:

  • 4 cups or 1/2 package of shredded phyllo knafeh dough (Oula uses breadcrumbs when she is unable to locate the knafeh. You usually have to buy it from special Middle Eastern stores, but she promises breadcrumbs taste exactly the same!)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup orange blossom syrup, plus more for serving (recipe included below)
  • 2 cups fresh mozzarella, or unsalted white cheese (mozzarella is most commonly used in the United States)
  • 1 can nestle cream
  • 1/4 cup chopped pistachio nuts for garnish

For the Orange Blossom Syrup:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1-2 teaspoons mazaher, orange blossom water (Oula says you can also use rose water instead, if you prefer)

  1. First prepare the orange blossom syrup: In a saucepan, combine the sugar, water, and lemon juice and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Then, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the mazaher (orange blossom water). Pour into a container and refrigerate until the syrup is completely cooled.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 ° F.
  3. In a food processor, pulse the knafeh dough (or bread crumbs) for about a minute until it becomes a fine meal. Transfer the dough to a bowl and add the melted butter and 1/2 cup orange blossom syrup. Mix until the dough is completely coated.
  4. You may now use a baking pan or cookie sheet to prepare the knafeh. Arrange half of the dough mixture in the bottom of the pan, pressing down firmly. Next, take half the cheese and arrange it in a layer on top of the dough. Cover the cheese with the cream, and place the remaining cheese on top of the cream. Finally, take the remaining dough and cover the cheese to create a top layer.
  5. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the knafeh is a deep golden brown color.
  6. Cool for 15 minutes and then drizzle with 1/4 cup orange blossom syrup. Garnish with pistachios and serve warm.