Over Labor Day weekend, a grassroots community meeting in Seattle quickly came together. The topic: how to help and resettle Syrian refugees in Washington state.
As the refugee crisis in Europe continues, Seattle is just one of many communities across the US wanting to help. At the Seattle meeting, more than 100 people turned out, including Amal Fahad, an engineer from Iraq who now works at Microsoft. She said what’s happening in Syria hits home. “When I see these photos I feel that probably like some of my siblings or their kids will be in exactly the same situation,” Fahad said. “But thank God ... in Iraq, there are still some safe areas.”
Like Fahad, many who attended the meeting were immigrants themselves or had some experience working with refugees. “As an immigrant here myself, what I might be able to help people with is paperwork, or help people who don’t speak English,” said James Raymond, from England.
During the gathering, people discussed ways to put pressure on local politicians to support efforts to resettle more Syrians in the US. Washington state played a key role decades ago in resettling refugees from Vietnam.
However, the resettlement process is complicated, costly and can take years. Alaa Yassin, a Syrian who came to Seattle in 2013 for a medical residency, said resettlement is a limited, short-term solution. “The most important thing is to try to have our voices very loud that we need to stop this war,” Yassin said.
Some people at the meeting had already found their way to Rita Zawaideh, and more will likely follow. Zawaideh runs the Salaam Cultural Museum, a humanitarian non-profit group that has sent aid and volunteers to help with the Syrian refugee crisis since 2012.
Mostly, the organization has focused on providing medical care at Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. But this month, it shifted its volunteer efforts to Greece, where the migrants arrive daily by boat. “The situation in Greece is horrid,” Zawaideh said. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
Zawaideh runs the non-profit out of her home office in Seattle, where the donations pour in every day.
“It comes from volunteers from all across the US that have heard of what we do,” Zawaideh said. “Every day we get boxes of stuff. It’s fabulous.”
Her reception room is lined with shelves, stuffed with clothing, hygiene kits, medicine and other donations, including handmade scarves and quilts with handwritten notes. "Made for you with love by Carolyn in Texas" reads one message on a heart-shaped note. Another is from Vicky in Pensacola, Florida, along with Aunt Bess in Minnesota.
“It goes on and on and on,” Zawaideh said.
For the past few years, Zawaideh’s group has sent dozens of medical teams to refugee camps in Jordan. It’s also sent shipping containers packed with supplies — 22 containers last year alone.
Zawaideh is from Jordan, lived in Syria for 10 years, and has long been an activist on Middle East issues. On the day we met, she was heading to Cuba to try and help relocate some Syrians there. “I'm trying to open any door possible,” Zawaideh said. She’s exploring other options, too, such as chartering flights out of Turkey or even buying land in Spain where Syrians can live.
Her group is also focusing on the Greek island of Lesbos, where migrants are arriving by boat. Zawaideh’s group has a team there now, and a second one is on the way. They help with basic needs, such as food and medical care, and also coordinate with other aid groups to see what gaps they can fill.
Zawaideh’s motivation is clear: It’s for the refugee children.
She remembers one Syrian boy, 5, named Abdullah. She met him at a camp in Jordan. “I would talk to him and talk to his mom and I’d say, ‘He won't come out. He won't play with the kids,’” Zawaideh recalled. Abdullah’s mom said the boy stopped going outside ever since the day he saw soldiers dump his father’s body outside their home. Zawaideh wipes away tears as she remembers calling her daughter, a speech therapist, to ask for advice about how to help Abdullah.
The thought of Abdullah still breaks her heart, just like the photograph of the little Syrian boy, lifeless on the beach, has moved so many to tears. And to action.
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated Amal Fahad's gender. Fahad is a woman.