When former Craig Mayor Saed Tayyara was a teenager in his native country of Syria, his father told him he'd better move to the United States.
"If I'm going to see you alive, I need to send you abroad to live," his father told him.
At the time, Tayyara had done some reading on the concept of Democracy and had taken the idea to heart. He had begun exercising his beliefs in free speech and it had already gotten him in trouble once in Syria, which borders Iraq to the west.
"I took a strong belief in freedom at a young age," Tayyara told a group Monday at the monthly AARP meeting at Sunset Meadows in Craig.
After he graduated from high school, Tayyara packed his bags and, with just enough money for a plane ticket and two months rent, headed for college in the United States.
He couldn't even speak English.
But more than 30 years later, Tayyara is a former business owner and mayor, and now regularly exercises his freedom of speech he so longed for as a young man, regularly attending local meetings and expressing his opinions on local issues whenever he sees it necessary to do so.
"If I were to speak as freely then as I am now, I would be dead,"
In a two-hour talk Monday, Tayyara tried to explain the history behind the religious and political climate of the Middle East, shared his first-hand experiences of oppression in his native country and shared why he supports the United States' actions in going to war with Iraq.
Tayyara said Syria's approach to controlling its people is moderate compared to that of Iraq, and to drive the point home, gave examples of Syria's "moderate" approach that he experienced first hand.
He said when he was 15, he was competing in a soccer game, and anti-government material was distributed in the stands during the match.
Tayyara said although he had nothing to do with what was distributed, nor even knew it was being distributed, he was awoken in his bed that night with a hand over his mouth and a gun to his head.
He was arrested for what had taken place that day and those who held him captive tried to manipulate him into admitting he was involved.
He never did and was later released.
On another occasion, Tayyara had criticized the ruling regime in one of his high school classes.
The school's teachers had him arrested.
Tayyara said he was thrown into a 4-by-4-foot cell. Water was released into the cell and an electric current was sent through the cell as part of his torture for speaking out, he said.
It was because of those experiences, and young Tayyara's ever-growing beliefs in freedom, that his father decided he had better get out of the country.
Once he left, and began to make his way in the United States, Tayyara said he would write home and talk about the freedoms he was experiencing in America.
But those letters, he said, would be intercepted before they ever reached his family.
Tayyara still visits his family every two years and he talks politics with his siblings -- but they do it behind closed doors, he said.
Tayyara said there are more than 5 million Syrian immigrants living throughout the world.
But 17 million people still live in Syria, he said.
"They've given up," he said. "Exactly like what's happened to the people in Iraq."
He said people who have not lived there cannot understand why more people don't leave or try to do something about the oppression they experience their lives.
"It's hard for us to comprehend why these people don't uprise," he said. "But many who have are dead."
Speaking out against the government is not taken lightly in Syria, he said.
"When we used to demonstrate, they never used tear gas," he said. "They used live ammunition."
Tayyara said because of his insight, he knows something must be done regarding Saddam Hussein, he said.
Saddam has killed millions of his own people, and millions more have suffered for years, he said.
"I'm not here to persuade you," he told the group Monday. "But in my mind war in Iraq to free these people is justified and humane. You have to save the 34 million people who have suffered there all of these years."
Once Saddam is ousted, changes can be made in Iraq, he said. Those changes will trickle down to the rest of the Middle East, including his native country.
"The minute Iraqi people see that Saddam is dead, they will be with you," he said of the United States' actions. "War is never easy, but sometimes it's a necessity to make peace. When people have been oppressed for 40 years, someone from the outside needs to take action."
In the meantime, people who already experiencing the freedoms that are being fought for in the Middle East should recognize and appreciate those rights, he said.
"It's our obligation to teach our children not to take freedom for granted," he said. "You live one time and you die one time. I decided I don't want to live as a slave."
Josh Nichols can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.