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Brooklyn subway shooting evoked painful memories for Syrian man who helped nab suspect

NEW YORK: There’s more to the Zack Tahhan story than meets the eye. The 21-year-old from Aleppo in Syria found himself in the social media spotlight on Wednesday after his report to police contributed to the arrest of Frank James, the suspect in the mass shooting in the subway of Brooklyn a day earlier.

The shocking attack, which injured 29, including five in critical condition, was the latest violent incident in New York, which has been reeling from a rise in violent crime since the start of the pandemic, including several incidents recent in the metro system. .

Tahhan works as a security camera technician. He was updating a CCTV system at a hardware store on the corner of First Avenue and Saint Marks Place in Manhattan’s East Village on Wednesday when he spotted James. He immediately recognized him as the suspect in the Brooklyn shooting, whose photograph was widely shared in news reports and online after it was released by the New York Police Department.

Tahhan told Arab News that his first instinct was to warn passers-by so he shouted at them “Please stay away” because he was afraid there was another shooting.

He then ran to the manager of the store where he worked and asked him to call the police but the man hesitated.

“It’s not easy to catch someone like James because even if people spot him, they’re afraid to get involved in any way,” Tahhan said.

“The manager told me he didn’t want to get in trouble. He didn’t want anything to do with it. But why? If you see something with your own eyes, you have to say something. Why are you? you scared? Whose?”

Unable to persuade the manager to act quickly, Tahhan instead ran down the street to the first police car he saw and told officers James was nearby.

“I’m so happy we caught it,” he said. “Imagine if he was on his way to Times Square, where massive crowds fill the streets; he could have injured thousands of people.

Although other people also claimed to have informed police of James’ location and the suspect’s attorney suggested that his client contacted the police himself, #ThankyouZack was nonetheless trending online Thursday as as word of Tahhan’s role in the arrest spread and media from all over the world tried to contact him.

He said he hadn’t slept on Wednesday night and had to charge his phone five times to handle all the calls he received.

To those who hailed him as a hero, including some who dubbed him the “King of New York,” he said, “Thank you. People are nice here. I want to tell them, guys, be careful. Make sure your family is safe.

He revealed that he’s not a big fan of social media. He opened an Instagram account years ago but only posted one photo, and his Facebook and Twitter accounts are also inactive.

“Social media distracts you from real life,” Tahhan said. “You stop seeing and noticing what is around you. I’m too busy to be on social media.

Tahhan struggled to talk about his feelings and emotions when he read the news reports of the shooting and saw the images of the victims’ bodies soaked in blood on the subway platform.

“Seeing is one thing, talking about it is another,” he said. “It’s something I feel deep in my heart: I don’t want anyone to get hurt. These people have families waiting for them at home.

“It’s not that I haven’t seen similar tragedies with my own eyes before.”

Saving people and contributing to their safety seems to have been part of Tahhan’s destiny from an early age.

He was born in Brooklyn but his Syrian father moved the family back to Aleppo when Tahhan was a year old. At first, they led a peaceful life in the Sabil neighborhood, an upscale predominantly Sunni neighborhood.

He said he was 13 when the battle for Aleppo began at the start of the Syrian civil war. Although still so young himself, he volunteered to help rescue civilians injured in attacks and said he recovered many body parts from children under the rubble.

The Battle of Aleppo began on July 19, 2012. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to centuries-old monuments, Aleppo was the city most affected by the war. It was almost completely destroyed and the inhabitants fled in a mass exodus. The battle continued for more than four years before Syrian regime troops destroyed the last remaining rebel supply line, aided by Russian airstrikes, and retook the city in December 2016.

It was one of the longest sieges in the history of modern warfare. It claimed around 31,000 lives and damaged or destroyed more than 34,000 buildings, including in the Old City.

Tahhan’s older brother, who at the start of the war was a soldier in the Syrian army, foresaw the brutality and devastation that was fast approaching. He refused to point his gun at his people and the two brothers fled to Turkey.

Tahhan stayed there for three years before renewing his US passport, which had expired years earlier. It was something he thought he would never have to do. It finally reached the United States and ended up in New Jersey in 2018.

He laments the fact that he cannot return to Syria, where his extended family still lives, because he and his brother are wanted by the regime.

“My whole childhood was pure tragedy,” he said. “We live under a criminal and murderous regime. What can be said of a president who kills his own people, who kills children?

“What would he do if someone killed his children in front of his eyes? How would he feel then? If someone hit him, wouldn’t he feel pain? Doesn’t he know that others also feel pain when subjected to violence? »

Today, the horrifying images of war in Ukraine have stirred up bad memories for Tahhan in what seems like an endless sense of deja vu. When he watches the news every day and sees the effects of wars and other types of violence, he says he psychologically relives his experience of the battles that wiped out his childhood town.

“I see the same thing happening to Ukrainians,” he said. “Such a tragedy.”

Tahhan called on the UN and the US government to open the doors of immigration more widely to children from Syria, Ukraine, Lebanon and all war-torn countries.

“Let’s open the doors for them, bring them here and give them a taste of peace and security. Let’s give them a good life,” he said.

It was with these children in mind that Tahhan said he was determined to declare, during his first impromptu press conference after the arrest of Frank James, which went viral: “I am from Syria”.

“I wanted people who have a distorted image of who Syrians are to know,” he said.

He declined, however, to generalize about attitudes in the United States toward immigrants or to condemn the entire country for any perceived increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in certain neighborhoods.

“All the fingers on your hand are not alike, as the Arabic saying goes,” he said. “Like everywhere else, there are people who understand and others who don’t.

“But I love America. There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the rule of law, where your civil rights are never wasted.

“If you have the will, you can be anything you want to be here. If you want to be president, you can. Nothing is impossible here. Let me cut to the chase: this is the land of the free. »

Tahhan had a final message for civilians living in war-torn countries in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world.

“I sometimes think to myself, thank God I was lucky and came here,” he said. “But I tell you, I’m sad for what’s happening in Syria, sad for Ukraine, sad for all war-torn countries.

“I worry about the future of our children, the future of our families, and I want them so badly to live in peace and security. I know how hard your lives are. I know all about your daily tragedies. But, God willing, your patience will win out in the end.

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