HUFFINGTON POST
10/03/2014 07:36 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2014

A Syrian Revolutionary Speaks Out: Here's What The World Should Know

At first look, Farouq Al Habib would seem an unlikely revolutionary. He wears thick, round glasses and speaks with a distinguished and professional air. A banker by trade, he is fluent in Arabic, French, and English. He holds a BA in economics, an MA in international business, and a doctorate in business administration. And in 2011, he founded the Homs Revolutionary Council and helped to lead the Syrian Revolution.

Habib doesn't look like the "Syrian rebels" depicted on TV or in newspapers. He is not dressed in military gear, and there is no gun strapped to his person -- but Habib is quick to note that the Syrian Revolution did not begin with guns or war cries. It began peacefully, with protesters marching unarmed through the streets, with Syrians in the wake of the Arab Spring demanding their own democracy.

Thinking back to the beginning -- to 2011, when he stood with "hundreds of thousands of Syrian people marching in the streets, peacefully, carrying the flags of the independence of Syria and calling for freedom and democracy" -- that, Habib said, "is the Syrian people. That is the real Syrian people."

Habib was forced to flee to Turkey in 2013 when the Assad regime threatened his life, he said. But he is still active in helping those inside the country. Today, Habib is the coordinator and program manager for the White Helmets, a search-and-rescue unit operating to save civilian lives inside Syria. The more than 1,000 volunteers who make up the White Helmets are trained by the Red Cross, and the Syria Campaign, a nonprofit registered in the U.K., coordinates fundraising efforts for the group.

Habib was in New York City last week to meet with the U.N. and different governmental bodies to ask for more humanitarian intervention in Syria. "No people in history got freedom for free," he told The Huffington Post in an interview during his visit. "We have to pay a price. It's very expensive, we know, we realized. We didn't imagine it would be so expensive. We didn't imagine that we would face such a brutal regime using all means against its own people. And we couldn't imagine that in the 21st century, there would be so much ignorance from the international community. It abandoned us."

He says he stood up in 2011 because he and his comrades felt a duty to change their nation's destiny. In spite of the revolution's peaceful beginnings, he was aware of the dangers, but he never could have imagined the costs. Habib spent most of 2011 helping members of the press capture video and images of President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on protesters. He believed that if the rest of the world saw what was happening in Syria, they would have no choice but to intervene.

For assisting western journalists, Habib was targeted by Assad's security forces. In 2012, he was captured and detained for smuggling a journalist into a protest. "There is no law in Syria against helping journalists," Habib told HuffPost, but that didn't stop the security forces from capturing, jailing and torturing him.

He doesn't like to talk about the time he spent in prison or the time he spent being tortured. His experience pales in comparison to what others suffered alongside him, he said.

Ironically, it was in the regime's dehumanizing torture tactics that Habib found something uniquely human to hold onto: a name.

It belonged to a man he had never known outside of the jail's walls, a man whose face he had never seen. Abo Salim was the man held in the cell adjacent to Habib's.

Every day, the prison security guards would select two prisoners and take them to be tortured. One morning, Salim was selected, but he never returned. Habib later learned from others who were tortured alongside his prison neighbor that Salim had been tortured to death that day. Habib knew only two things about Salim -- that he was from Damascus and that he had a wife and five children whom he loved.

"I prayed to God, and I pledged that if I go alive out of prison, I will take his name and I will try to find his family."

Habib was released from prison -- he credits this to a corrupt system and the jailers who accepted the bribes paid by his friends on the outside. True to his word, Abo Salim became his moniker during the remainder of his time in Syria, and he still considers it his revolutionary name.

Unfortunately, Habib has yet to locate Salim's family in Damascus. He's not sure if they've fled, and he doesn't know if they're dead or alive, he said. But whether he's discussing his dreams for a better Syria or his commitment to finding Salim's family, Habib has no intention of giving up.

"We are committed to our cause," he said. "It is our country, our destiny, and we can't give up. We don't have another choice. We feel that -- especially, we as Syrian activists who started this revolution in 2011 -- feel that we are responsible to continue because in one way or another, we are a part of this war. Even if we didn't want it, but we are responsible. Those families, those women and children who are living now under shelling every day, who are exposed to barrels of bombs ... of course we are not responsible for those barrels, but we are responsible to help them."

After nearly giving his life to show the world what was happening inside of Syria, after watching so many of his friends die to ensure that nobody on the outside could claim ignorance to the atrocities that his people were suffering, this unlikely revolutionary had a message for the world at large:

"I want to tell the international community that we believed in you," he said. "We believe we share the same values as you, we used to watch American movies and dream of freedom like yours. We used to hear from our friends who live in the west about the rights of the citizens, how the state works for the lives of its own citizens, not for a ruling family. And how the army is the army of the people. And we thought that if we fight for the same values that you announce and you pledge for, we thought that you would help us. Because, in the end, if all of us in the world implement the same values of freedom and dignity and equality, that would bring peace for all human beings. But in the end, we were disappointed."

Video produced by Emily Kassie and Carina Kolodny
Video Shot and Edited by Emily Kassie
Story Written by Carina Kolodny

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