NEW YORK: There is more to Zack Tahhan’s story than might initially meet the eye. The 21-year-old from Aleppo in Syria found himself in the social media spotlight on Wednesday after his tip-off to police helped lead to the arrest of Frank James, the suspect in the Brooklyn subway mass shooting a day earlier.
The shocking attack, which left 29 people wounded, including five in critical condition, was the latest violent incident in New York, which has been reeling from an increase in violent crime since the start of the pandemic, including several recent incidents in the subway system.
Tahhan works as a security camera technician. On Wednesday, he was updating a closed circuit TV system at a hardware store at the corner of First Avenue and Saint Marks Place in Manhattan’s East Village when he spotted James. He immediately recognized him as the suspect in the Brooklyn shooting, whose photograph had been 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 and so he yelled to them to “Please stay away” because he feared there might be another shooting.
He then ran to the manager of the store where he was working and asked him to call the police but the man hesitated.
“It is not easy to catch someone like James because even if people spot him, they are afraid to get involved in any way,” Tahhan said.
“The manager told me he didn’t want to get in trouble. He wanted nothing to do with it. But why? If you see something with your own eyes, you need to say something. Why are you scared? Of whom?”
Unable to persuade the manager to act swiftly, Tahhan instead ran up the street to the first police car he saw and told the officers that James was nearby.
“I am so happy we caught him,” he said. “Imagine if he was on his way to Times Square, where massive crowds fill the streets; he could have hurt thousands of people.”
Although other people have also claimed to have tipped off police about James’s location, and the suspect’s lawyer suggested that her client had contacted police himself, #ThankyouZack was nevertheless trending online on Thursday as news of Tahhan’s role in the arrest spread, and media outlets from all over the world tried to contact him.
He said he did not sleep on Wednesday night and had to recharge his phone five times to handle all the calls he has received.
To those who have 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, just be safe. Make sure your family is safe.”
He revealed that he is not much of a fan of social media. He opened an Instagram account years ago but has only posted one photo, and his Facebook and Twitter accounts are also inactive.
“Social media distracts you from actual living,” Tahhan said. “You stop seeing and noticing what’s around you. I am too busy to be on social media.”
Tahhan struggled to speak about his feelings and emotions when he read news reports about the shooting and saw the images of blood-soaked bodies of victims on the subway platform.
“Seeing is one thing, talking about it is another,” he said. “This is something I feel deep inside my heart: I don’t want anyone to get hurt. Those people have families waiting for them at home.
“Not that I hadn’t seen with my own eyes similar tragedies before.”
Saving people and helping to keep them safe seems to have been part of Tahhan’s destiny from an early age.
He was born in Brooklyn but his Syrian father took the family back to Aleppo when Tahhan was a one-year-old. At first they lived a peaceful life in the Sabil neighborhood, an upscale, predominantly Sunni area.
He said he was 13 when the Battle of Aleppo began in the early days of the Syrian civil war. Although still so young himself, he volunteered to help rescue civilians injured in attacks and said he retrieved many body parts of children from under the rubble.
The Battle of Aleppo began on July 19, 2012. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to centuries-old landmarks, Aleppo was the city worst-affected by the war. It was almost completely destroyed and residents fled in a mass exodus. The battle continued for more than four years before Syrian regime troops destroyed the last-remaining rebel supply line, with the help of Russian airstrikes, and recaptured the city in December 2016.
It was one of the longest sieges in the history of modern warfare. It left about 31,000 people dead, 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 turn his gun on his own people and so the two brothers fled to Turkey.
Tahhan remained 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. He eventually reached the US and ended up in New Jersey in 2018.
He laments the fact that he is unable to 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, killer regime. What can you say about a president who kills his own people, who kills children?
“What would he do if someone killed his children before his eyes? What would he feel then? If someone hit him, wouldn’t he feel pain? Doesn’t he know that others feel pain too when they are subjected to violence?”
Now the horrifying images emerging from the war in Ukraine have stirred up bad memories for Tahhan in what seems like a never-ending sense of deja vu. When he watches the news each day and sees the effects of wars and other types of violence, he said that he psychologically relives his experience of the battles that wiped out his childhood city.
“I am watching the same happening to Ukrainians,” he said. “Such a tragedy.”
Tahhan called on the UN and the US government to open the immigration doors wider to children from Syria, Ukraine, Lebanon and all war-ravaged countries.
“Let’s open the doors for them, bring them here and have them get a taste of peace and security. Let’s give them a good life,” he said.
It was with those 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 refused, however, to generalize about attitudes in the US toward immigrants or condemn the whole country for any perceived increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in some quarters.
“Not all of your hand’s fingers are alike, as the Arabic saying goes,” he said. “Just like anywhere else, there are people who understand and those who don’t.
“But I love America. There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the rule of law, where your civil rights never go to waste.
“If you have the will, you can be anything you want to be here. If you want to become president, you can. Nothing is impossible here. Let me cut to the chase: This is the country of freedom.”
Tahhan had a final message for civilians living in war-torn countries in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world.
“I think to myself sometimes, thank God I got lucky and came here,” he said. “But I tell you, I am sad for what’s happening in Syria, sad for Ukraine, sad for all the war-ravaged countries.
“I worry about the future of our kids, the future of our families, and I so want them 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 in the end.”