Sayed said she grew more deeply depressed and physically ill with every passing day. She no longer rose early, worked out and greeted her fans with lighthearted jokes. She dreaded going to work each day, she said, and found herself frequently in tears.
To make matters worse, the station had begun receiving threats from the armed opposition, the then-nascent force that would turn into one side of a burgeoning civil war.
The rebels in recent weeks have shown themselves to be particularly merciless when it comes to pro-regime media figures, kidnapping and executing a TV anchorman, abducting a state TV cameraman, capturing a pro-regime TV crew and killing one of them, forcing on-camera “confessions” from state media workers, killing a journalist with the state news agency SANA and bombing several pro-Assad media outlets.
Sayed made her decision to leave long before those atrocities. At the time, in the last weeks of 2011, it was the regime’s pressure and paranoia that she couldn’t endure, she said, along with a realization that her faith in the president had been naive.
“I would clench my teeth when I got messages from Homs or Hama” – where fierce government shelling campaigns were under way – “and I couldn’t read them on the show. I know my fans dropped by half. I know it. And I hated myself,” Sayed said.
She became reckless on air, she said, almost inviting reprimands. If she heard of a pro-government rally, she’d go on the air to steer people away from the area on account of “heavy traffic.” The next time she got a text message from the flash-point city of Homs, she threw out management’s edict to ignore opposition sympathizers: “I feel you, I agree with you and I’m sorry I can’t read your message on air,” she recalled saying.
Then she exploded at a listener who called in to complain that the station still played Persian Gulf music when it was well known that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were arming and bankrolling the rebels.
“I told him, ‘How about we close the radio station for people like you? We won’t put Gulf songs, we won’t put American songs, we won’t put Turkish songs, and how about we live alone on this earth as Syrians? Would you like that?’ ” she said.
Her family and friends agreed it was time for her to leave, and she was lucky: She had a valid visa to the United States left over from an earlier trip. She quickly sold her car and made quiet arrangements to go.
There was no fanfare on Dec. 31, 2011, because her fans weren’t supposed to know that it was her last show in a seven-year run. They figured it out only later, she said, when they found her on Twitter and sent messages of thanks.
“I had to go on air and say, ‘See you in a few months. I’m going for a media training,’ ” she said of her last day. “I cried off the microphone. The producer would turn the music up for a minute, I’d wipe off the tears and go back on air.”
Sayed was also fortunate that she landed in the United States just in time to qualify for the Obama administration’s recent “temporary protected status” designation, which allows Syrian refugees to stay in the U.S. and apply for work permits because of the crisis in their homeland.
Now she’s struggling to land a job. Her days are consumed with meetings with potential employers, activism online and with Syrian nonprofits, phone calls to check on her parents and friends in Damascus, and long bouts of soul-searching at the Potomac waterfront or in her favorite cafes.
She won’t support the armed rebel forces, she’s decided, because there’s too little known about them and their ambitions, and she’s a pacifist at heart. She’s a bigger supporter of the nonviolent protest movement, even though she knows it’s been rendered irrelevant in the civil war.
The typically poised and eloquent Sayed broke down one recent afternoon when she contemplated the lack of options for ending the bloodshed.
“I hate them. I don’t care about my show, I just hate what they did to the country,” she said of the Assad regime. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed, shoulders heaving.
“We cannot allow anyone to divide us, inside or outside Syria. I just hate that I can’t be there. I hate that I have to be scared for my family. I hate that I can’t have a voice to tell them what I used to tell them: ‘It’s OK, let’s stick together, let’s love each other.’ ”