I was sitting in class when my phone started to blow up with incoming messages: “Did you hear what happened to Halla Barakat?”
My heart raced. “What happened?” I texted back.
The ensuing silence felt like hours. A minute later I got my answer: “She was assassinated… along with her mom in Istanbul.”
My heart fell into my stomach. The classroom started to spin. Another Syrian revolution activist murdered. Another stolen life to grieve.
Halla was a Syrian-American journalist who had recently graduated with a political science degree from a university in Turkey and got a job working for a Syrian-owned media outlet in Istanbul. From the early days of the revolution, Halla and her mother, Arouba Barakat, had played very active roles in leading protests and shedding light on the Syrian crisis in both Arabic and English-language media.
Their efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The Syrian regime repeatedly threatened the lives of Halla and her mother, warning them to quiet their voices or else. Yet the women bravely persisted.
On Thursday, the two were found dead in their apartment. They reportedly were stabbed to death. It makes Halla the fifth Syrian journalist murdered in Turkey over the past few years.
For me, this isn’t just another foreign murder in a faraway land. Halla was my friend. We had been organizing an event together in New York City in November to speak about Syrian activists in media. Now, for security reasons, we’re not sure if we’ll move forward with the event.
Halla and I had many things in common. We’re both Syrian-Americans, we both studied political science, we both played very active roles in the Syrian Revolution, and we both worked in media. We both had our futures ahead of us. Now this beautiful, 23-year-old activist and journalist had all that taken away from her. She was silenced in cold blood. There’s no more future for her, and that’s tearing me part inside.
After class, my friends helped me calm down. I drove home with a brutal migraine, trying to process the gruesome images of the horrible news. My friend and her mother had their throats slit, and their bodies were now lying under bloodied sheets on an apartment floor. The killer had covered their bodies in lime to cover the smell of decomposing flesh.
The story is both horrific and personally terrifying. The Syrian regime continues to murder activists in foreign countries.
The next morning, I woke to my parent’s murmuring to each other in the kitchen. “I’m worried about Alaa’s safety,” my mother told my father. “We need to talk to her about protecting herself,” my father replied.
Their words felt like a punch to the gut. What does protection mean? I don’t believe in guns. I don’t believe in carrying weapons. My parents don’t either. But the security concern has become so real, even for people thousands of miles away from the Assad regime and ISIS, that this is now a conversation my family is having in our kitchen in the United States.
The war in Syria doesn’t end at the borders. Halla and her mother were murdered in Turkey. Exiled Syrian activists like myself are constantly worried about our safety, no matter how far we may think we are from Assad’s reach.
Meanwhile, Syrians who remained in Syria continue to get targeted with TNT barrel bombs and Russian airstrikes. ISIS is still beheading civilians. Human-rights advocates inside and outside of Syria are constantly on the run.
This is the cost of being a Syrian who dreams of democracy.