Living the American dream

From dangers of Syria to courthouse of Moffat County with commissioner Saed Tayyara

It's the middle of the night. Strangers enter a young man's home. They walk to where he's sleeping.

One of them puts a hand over his mouth.

The teenage boy wakes up. A machine gun is pointed at his head. These strangers, storm troopers doing the bidding of the government, whisk him off to jail.

His crime isn't really a crime, at least not where people are free.

Here, however, speaking out against the government doesn't make you a radical, a liberal or even a right- or left-wing anarchist.

It makes you a criminal.

Speaking out lands you in prison, where henchmen use less-than-civil tactics to try to get you to admit things you didn't do and talk about things you know nothing about.

This was Syria, and this is what happened to local politico Saed Tayyara more than four decades ago.

"Me and the government," Tayyara said from his basement office at the Moffat County Courthouse, "we didn't agree. ... I believed in individual rights, democracy, justice and freedom.

"Being active in politics, you don't live long there."

The pull of politics

So he escaped. Tayyara immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. He went to school, earned a degree and started a business. He then became a citizen in 1972, whetted his appetite for politics and campaigned for office.

He won.

In Syria, becoming active in politics means you live with the threat of being imprisoned or thrown out of school. It means you might not live at all -- no judge, no jury, no chances.

"They have no mercy toward anybody," he said. "It's as simple as that. ... If you speak your mind, you are in danger."

Here, it means an immigrant can work hard and earn a degree in political science, and America will embrace him by electing him mayor of Craig, and later, a Moffat County commissioner.

"I'm an American," he said, with framed pictures of archetypal American icons such as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan hanging on the wall behind him. "I will die an American. I've lived here longer than where I was born and raised. I dreamt about coming to the U.S. when I was in the eighth grade.

"Our kids have to really understand how good we have it. Back there, they won't give you a chance."

Syria and back

For the first 27 years, Tayyara returned to Syria only twice. He said the fear of reprisals from the government kept him away. Even today, with a brother, sister and about 40 nieces and nephews still living there, he tempers his words when discussing the country.

Since 1990, he's gone back six times, the latest of which was earlier this month for a three-week visit. He promised a niece he would return if she ever decided to get married.

He lived up to his word and arrived in Tartous, Syria's second-largest port city, about 100 miles north of Beirut, on Sept. 4.

While there, Tayyara was reminded of how volatile the world he left decades ago still can be.

On Sept. 12, Syrian security forces thwarted an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, an effort widely praised by U.S. officials, given the U.S.'s typically uneasy relationship with the Middle Eastern country.

For Tayyara, keeping up with worldwide events is a typical practice. Although he focuses on many regions, it's the Middle East that he's asked about most often.

"It's hard to survive there with too many issues," he said. "It's a lot like a volcano. At any time, it can explode."

A view from afar

Although united by many things -- religion, culture and language -- the Middle East remains a hot zone because government leaders are mostly non-democratic and divided.

This is different than the pulse of the people, the majority of whom abhor violence, Tayyara said.

"(The governments) talk about unity, about federalism, but they don't mean it," he said. "Each one of them wants to protect their own selfish interests."

There was once a time when Tayyara talked often and openly about his experiences, about the Middle East and hope for its future. Not so much anymore, he said.

Today, he discusses it mainly when hearing the rants and raves of people slamming the U.S. government and its policies. He uses the past as perspective for illustrating how good we have it here compared with the lives of others who live a world away, he said.

"It's part of me, and I'll talk about it (sometimes), but I don't have all the answers.

"We have the best government you can put your eyes on right here in the United States," Tayyara said. "We complain a lot. Maybe we have that right, but if we sit back and analyze the problems of somewhere else, this is nothing."

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