A Syrian refugee longs for life as a journalist in a free Syria

Ola Malas is rebuilding her life in the United States after a menacing journey out of war-torn Syria. 

Although she stays in touch with her countrymen on social media, the former journalist longs for the life she left behind.

“The revolution made me lose a lot,” Malas said. “Without my job and my show, I lost myself. I lost my passion. I lost my life.”  

Born and raised in Damascus, Syria, Malas grew up with five puckish brothers and always had a passion for writing poetry and stories.

“They always told me I’d be a writer,” Malas said in her Syrian Arabic dialect, later translated into English.   

After writing for her high school newspaper, Malas decided to major in humanities in college. As an adamant advocate for human rights and social justice, she furthered her journalism career by taking reporting courses with Al-Jazeera and BBC.

Her success grew, first as a magazine writer for Chabablik, and then as the host of her own radio show “Crazy Maa Aloosh,” or as translated into “Crazy with Aloosh,” her nickname. The show, fused with satire and comedy, focused on social criticism and eventually grew in popularity alongside a fledgling Syrian generation.

Malas’ show continued as the Syrian Revolution began amid a string of protests that blazed through the Middle East. A vocal supporter of the revolution, Malas was criticized by government advocates, but praised by her hurting revolutionaries.

“When I found out that Ola was pro the revolution, I became happy and began following her on Facebook,” Dr. Sereen Sosoak, a dentist and long-time follower of Malas’ career, said.

Senior executives and government officials, who controlled several media organizations, soon asked her to condemn the revolution on her show. She refused, making enemies in the workplace. The hostile work environment and growing threats to her, her husband and their then-infant daughter, Jouli, forced Malas to leave her job.

“My co-workers were against me” Malas said. “I ended a huge part of my life. I loved to laugh and without the show, my laugh was lost.” 

As the protests intensified in Syria, Malas’ young family of three became even more susceptible to danger. 

Her husband, Eiyad Charbaji, was also working as a journalist at the time, reporting from both government-controlled and free areas. The couple, however, remained resilient after receiving several threats.  

“My husband and I were constantly being followed and spied on by the Syrian government, but we weren’t afraid,” Malas said.

It was only a few weeks after the threats began that her husband was thrown in jail, beaten and tortured, as an anti-government journalist.

Growing risk for Malas and her daughter, Jouli, who was personally targeted, forced Malas to leave Syria for Saudi Arabia where her parents lived.

It took months for her husband to be released. The U.S. Department of State had granted him a visa as a part of the International Visitors Leadership Program before the protests began. Using this opportunity, Charbaji left for the U.S. after being released from prison. The visa, however, was his alone. It would be a year and a half before Malas, her husband and their daughter were reunited.

Despite losing her job and being separated from her husband, Malas wasted no time making the most of the situation. While in Saudi Arabia, she led pro-women and pro-child workshops.

Malas had never been completely independent and admitted to losing herself in all the chaos. As a college graduate, she moved directly from her parent’s home into her husband’s home without as much as a lift of a finger. Even as a mom, she had a live-in nanny to care for Jouli.

“It was difficult,” Malas said. “I’ve never lived on my own. I was the spoiled only daughter in the family.”

With the help of her parents, Malas played an expatriate with Jouli, moving from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Turkey to Jordan in search of opportunities. In Amman, Jordan, she got back on her feet as the host of the talk show “Lamit Ahl” or “Family Gathering.”

“Doing the show gave me back a little bit of the life I lost in Syria, “ Malas said, “but everyone knew I was not the same. I didn’t laugh as much.”

Shortly after wrapping up “Lamit Ahl,” Malas and Jouli finally joined Charbaji in Fairfax, Va. where he now works as a freelance journalist at the District of Columbia bureau of Al-Jazeera.

Malas admittedly feels guilty for leaving behind her country and her people.

“I’m very sad. I feel arrogant for leaving them and coming here,” Malas said. “There’s nothing here except that my daughter is safe and she’s going to school.”

To remain in solidarity with her countrymen back home in Syria, Malas remains active on social media.

One of her followers, Nabila Hijazi met with her at the fourth anniversary of the Syrian Revolution in front of the White House.

“The Syrian community these days knows each other off Facebook and Twitter,” Hijazi said. “So we started talking about the #HowManyMore campaign all day in front of the White House while reading the names of the children killed by the Assad regime.” 

“She uses social media to open up the minds of others and to bring light to the problems of the Revolution,” Sosoak, who is also a friend of hers, said.

As a new Virginia resident, Malas fills her days raising 5-year-old Jouli and taking an English course with a diverse group of students.  

She admits she has no immediate plans to return to journalism, but is considering going back to school to study psychology.

“I want to help kids. I want to go back [to Syria] and help them,” Malas said.

Despite all of the hardships and loss she’s endured, Malas remains hopeful about the future of Syria.

With tears in her eyes and a croak in her voice, Malas said, “In Syria, there are very painful stories, but the dictatorship didn’t oppress me. I got away. He may have oppressed my people, but hope is there.”