Displaced: Turkish Citizen Overcomes Adversity

Displaced: Turkish Citizen Overcomes Adversity

UPDATED: A previous version of this article had Sirin Duman Alkarim identified as a Syrian citizen. Syria is her adopted country, but she is a Turkish citizen.

Staff Photo Nick BrothersSirin Duman Alkarim, a Syrian Citizen involved with the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, poses with her daughter Denise at her current residence in Fayetteville, Ark.

Staff Photo Nick BrothersSirin Duman Alkarim, a Turkish Citizen involved with the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, poses with her daughter Denise at her current residence in Fayetteville, Ark.

In March 2011, Sirin (pronounced shir-reen) Duman Alkarim waited on the veranda of her Damascus, Syria, home, scared, thinking about what could happen to her husband, Taysir Alkarim.

Taysir had gone out to join a non-violent political demonstration against Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government, when the first phase of the Syrian Revolution began. There was political tension between the different minority and majority communities in their neighborhood about participating in the demonstrations.

Taysir returned, but before long he was forced into hiding in the fall of 2011 for his involvement in the demonstrations.

In April 2011, the Syrian Army fired on demonstrators, and the once peaceful demonstrations became a full-scale armed rebellion. The revolution escalated to the regime using chemical weapons on civilian neighborhoods on the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus in August 2013, constituting a war crime, said United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The death toll of the revolution, including many unarmed civilians, has since risen above 191,000 with many deaths undocumented, according to the United Nations.

While Taysir was in hiding from the opposition, Sirin had to live alone. Every time she had to see him, she was under surveillance. She would have to take a taxi to a different location, then get into another taxi to go to another location until she could go to the place where he was, she said.

Not long before the revolution, Sirin and Taysir were recent medical school graduates; Sirin a dentist, and Taysir an oncologist. They have an inter-faith relationship, Sirin being an Alawite Muslim and Taysir a Sunni Muslim. That — along with sympathizing with the Syrian nonviolence demonstrators — caused Sirin’s friends and family in Antakya, Turkey, that believed the propaganda supporting the regime, to eventually disown her. A friend of hers labeled her “brainwashed.”

While in hiding, Taysir helped the wounded who had been shot or hurt by the regime troops. He knew all the doctors in the area, and he asked for their help to get medicine. Taysir and the other doctors involved worked anywhere feasible, including living rooms, and in orchards under the trees.


Courtesy Photo Sirin Duman Alkarim (left) with her husband, Taysir Alkarim. Their marriage is inter-faith, and because of cultural tensions, their marriage has been subject to criticsims for the entirety of their marriage. The couple has been dedicated supporters of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement.

Sirin’s Turkish roots complicated her role in the Syrian Nonviolence Movement. Many people involved in the grassroots movement were wary to get her involved. She was advised to keep a distance from the conflict. However, she chose to involve herself willingly. She helped in any way she could, such as if someone needed a cell phone, she would find a way to take it to them.

In December 2011, Taysir was imprisoned by the Syrian Army for being a non-violent protestor. During his imprisonment, their home was raided, making it unsafe. In order for Sirin to even see Taysir, they would have to bribe the guards. Bribes are common in the prison system in Syria.

One day during Taysir’s imprisonment, Obaida Rakkad, a now-imprisoned demonstrator for the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, called Sirin. On the phone, Rakkad asked her to come save the life of a man who had a bullet in his head.

“I’m just a dentist!” Sirin said.

“We don’t have anyone,”Rakkad said. “Just come and see what you can do.”

To get there she had to go through several check points, which her non-Syrian nationality made much more stressful. She could have been deported or worse if things went south. During the trip she changed cars. At one point, the car stopped on the side of the road and she had to walk the last stretch until she got to the place by an orchard, where the field hospital with the injured man was. Sirin had to pretend she was a family member to remain undetected by the surveillance, so Sirin and her contact hugged and kissed like family. As a decoy against surveillance, the woman invited her inside to smoke a cigarette because they couldn’t immediately go to the hospital.

After being subject to torture and imprisonment for four months, Taysir was released in March 2012. Once out, he returned to helping those who needed medical attention in Jordan and neighboring countries. Eventually, Sirin was able to make it across the border from Syria into Jordan legally, and reunited with Taysir.

At the end of their stay in Jordan in December 2012, they were pressured to leave Jordan by Syrian state police to confess on television that they had been “duped” and “bribed to plot against the regime.”

“What if I don’t?” Taysir said.

“We will publish embarrassing private videos of you,” was the reply. According to an Iranian IT support technician, they claimed they were able to get videos of the couple in their bedroom from their computer’s web cam, and they would publish them.

“If you want embarrassing videos of me I will film them for you,” Sirin said in reply to the threat.

However, it is always understood that despite the threat of embarrassment, physical violence is a potential outcome to defiance. It was then that Sirin and Taysir felt that Jordan was no longer safe to live in, and they decided to seek refuge in the United States.


In December 2012, Sirin and Taysir had their first Skype meeting with Mohja Kahf, a professor of English at the University of Arkansas, while living in temporary housing in Rhode Island. Kahf had found out about the two from her involvement with the Syrian Nonviolence Movement through a friend in Canada. Kahf had an empty room in her house from her daughter since moving out, and she said she knew the Fayetteville community would be a safe place for them. Sirin and Taysir agreed to come.

Staff Photo Nick Brothers Sirin Duman (center) with her daughter, Denise (left), and Mohja Kahf (right). Kahf, an English professor at the University of Arkansas, has been supporting Duman throughout her journey.

Staff Photo Nick Brothers
Sirin Duman (center) with her daughter, Denise (left), and Mohja Kahf (right). Kahf, an English professor at the University of Arkansas, has been supporting Duman throughout her journey. 

“To be honest, at that point I was almost in a nervous breakdown so I was happy with anywhere. We were under severe stress and pressure. It didn’t matter,” Sirin said. “At least being here I can enjoy spending time with a personality that’s fun to be around.”

During their time in Fayetteville, Sirin and Taysir had their first child together, who they named Denise. Every time Taysir is away from the medical organizations while overseas, he feels isolated and thinks he’s letting other people down. So after a brief return to Turkey and Europe to start anew, Sirin and Denise returned to Fayetteville without Taysir in February 2014 so he could continue his efforts.

Several members of the Fayetteville community have extended their friendship to Sirin while she’s been here.

“For her to come into this tranquil, small community with no transportation, no I.D., it was a scary proposition,” said Hamsa Newmark, a supporter of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement, who has been — along with her husband, Moshe — quick to assist. “She’s managed really well, and her English has improved. I think she is somewhat comfortable waiting on the next step for her family. There’s a power to friendship. It’s no small thing.”

Fayettevillian Steve Holst lent a bike to Taysir while he was here, and also gave them both lots of rides to English classes at the Adult Education center, and everywhere else needed.

“Burnetta Hinterture, Hamsa and Moshe Newmark, and Ginny Masullo have been just incredible, too, in helping with logistics, such as with rides to absolutely crucal things like doctor appointments and everything,” Kahf said.

Having Sirin in the community has brought the reality of conflict in Syria home for those who have gotten to know Sirin.

“We’re people regardless of our background,” said Betty Brown, Kahf’s Mormon neighbor. “Humanity is what we have, and with peace and compassion we can be a bridge to eachother.”

Out of this group of friends, they helped put on a baby shower for Sirin and Tayseer, and for Denise’s first birthday, they put on a birthday party for her. Taysir was able to Skype in.

“We feel so helpless about all these events,” said Ginny Masullo. “You hear all this stuff about Syria, the Gaza Strip…you’re just appalled, and want to do something. Then here’s something personal you can do, and it’s meaningful. It’s consciousness driven. They were very happy to have the shower.”

Sirin said she wanted to go back to Syria no matter what happens. Despite everything she’s been through, Syria is still her home.

“Even though I don’t know anybody when I go out on the street, everyone says hello, and that’s really nice. People have called and asked me, ‘What do you need?’ I have not seen this kind of love in Turkey. People here are trustworthy. They greet eachother warmly with loving kindness in them toward eachother.”

“It is my wish, to this day, all people in the world spoke the same language, and there were no borders. With the existence of my daughter and seeing people who have really suffered, I have a duty to rise above my despair. I can at least help these people whose condition is far worse.”

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