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Helping the cause in their Syrian homeland

Syrian Civil WarDiseases and IllnessesMedia IndustryBashar AssadLibyan No-Fly Zone (2011)Barack Obama

After months of watching the uprising in Syria, spreading support through social media and raising money to offset the suffering, Dr. Hassan Masri thought he understood the devastation that that revolution has brought to his parents' homeland.

But during two weeks in Syria treating the sick and wounded — and seeing men succumb to heart attacks for want of medicine, women and girls laboring to conceal their having been raped, children who had frozen to death — the Baltimore physician developed a new level of commitment to the revolt against President Bashar Assad.

"Now it's not Syrians that you feel that you need to help," said Masri, who is planning another trip. "It's Khalid. It's Muhammad. It's Ahmed. It's Fatima. It's people you've met. It's your patients."

In recent days, the upheaval in Egypt has diverted attention from the devastating civil war in Syria — where an estimated 100,000 have been killed and millions displaced. Turmoil in both countries can be traced back to the widespread changes of the Arab Spring, but the Syrian uprising that began peacefully in early 2011 has drawn the harshest response, a wide-ranging military crackdown, with bombers leveling villages and snipers targeting civilians.

Masri and other Syrian-Americans in Maryland are sending humanitarian aid, traveling to the country — and pressing Washington to do more to stop the carnage.

"I'm very surprised by my government and the international community," says Salwa Dakheel, a Mitchellville woman who has helped to raise $150,000 to send food, medicine and supplies for the displaced. "They are watching a genocide and not doing anything about it."

The United States is the leading humanitarian donor to Syria, providing nearly $815 million in aid to people caught up in the civil war and refugees in other countries. Washington has also pledged $250 million in nonlethal support. Officials say President Barack Obama has decided to step up military aid to opposition fighters as a way to encourage a political settlement but have provided little detail.

Syrian-Americans say it is not enough.

Masri, Dakheel and others want the United States to impose a no-fly zone over the country — as it did in Libya to speed the ouster of Col. Moammar Gadhafi — to prevent forces loyal to Assad from slaughtering the opposition and civilians from above.

"We don't want America to send our sons," says Dakheel, who raised her three adult children here. "The resistance can probably do well if they just provide air cover and a safe haven. Just do it, and let the people of the country fight it out for themselves."

Some in Congress also support a no-fly zone, but the Obama administration has been cool to the idea. Officials say Syria's air defense system is more sophisticated than Libya's. But officials say Obama has not ruled out such intervention.

The administration has also expressed concern about extremists within the opposition and where U.S. military aid might end up.

Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, says the government welcomes input from Syrian-Americans.

"We talk to them regularly," said the longtime Baltimorean, who has been based in Washington since leaving Damascus in early 2012 amid security concerns.

"The Syrian-American community ... has a lot of perspectives that are useful to us," Ford said. "They have family right there, and so we frequently learn about how things are going on the ground from details that they can provide to us."

Telephone calls to the Syrian Embassy in Washington seeking comment were not returned.

The United States is home to nearly 150,000 people of Syrian ancestry, according to census estimates, with concentrations in the Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington areas. The community includes Muslims and Christians.

Dakheel, a native of Damascus who came to the United States in 1976, has long raised money for her homeland through the Washington-based Syrian Women's Association. After the uprising began in early 2011, she invited about 30 Syrian-Americans to her home to discuss how they might help.

There she met Rafif Jouejati, an activist from Northern Virginia. The women formed the Foundation to Restore Equality and Education in Syria with the idea of organizing and funding programs that would help women claim their place in a democratic, post-Assad nation.

"But then you see all these children slaughtered, fathers, mothers," Dakheel says. "For me, I just cannot stick to that one mission. We started providing humanitarian aid."

Dakheel, who manages her husband's medical practice in Bowie, hosts fundraising dinners and bazaars. Jouejati speaks before concerned groups. With a PayPal account online, Dakheel says, they have raised about $150,000 from Syrians and Americans.

Buying from businesses in the Middle East and managing logistics with local coordinating committees in Syria, they have delivered food baskets, blankets, pillows and sleeping mats and, most recently, medicine to treat the disease leishmaniasis, which is transmitted by sand flies, she said. They are also funding education and training programs in refugee camps and opposition-controlled areas of Syria.

"It's strictly humanitarian and civil society-building," she said, adding that she is growing frustrated with the international community.

"No one is helping," she said. "I see suffering. I see sickness. … Cholera, typhoid, you name it. You're going to have hundreds of people dying [during summer] from disease. Where is the world? They're just having meetings."

Yisser Bittar is also pushing for action. The Silver Spring woman is an advocate in Washington for the Syrian American Council, lobbying U.S. officials to increase support for the opposition and testifying recently before the Helsinki Commission, chaired by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, on the plight of Syrian refugees.

"The humanitarian crisis is something that needs to be highlighted," said Bittar, who took a group of young activists to her parents' homeland this year. "People are lacking literally everything. They're cutting down their olive groves for heating. They have no bread for weeks, and when they do get bread, the bread lines get hit by airstrikes."

The Syrian American Council maintains regular contact with the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, the opposition force, and local administrative groups that attempt to provide government services in opposition-controlled areas.

In Washington, Bittar said, "we see ourselves as trying to magnify the voice of the Syrian people ... which is, 'We want a civil state, we want freedom, we want democracy.'"

Bittar, whose parents took her to Syria regularly when she was growing up, said she and her fellow activists were in Tell Rifaat, a suburb of Aleppo, this year when a government plane dropped explosives 500 yards away, killing 18 people.

"I'm just in awe of these people when I think about what they're facing and the fact that they're still protesting," she says. "Their conviction is unbelievable."

Masri, an internist at Harbor Hospital in Baltimore, visited his parents' native Aleppo a couple of times growing up, but did not really connect with it. Syria, he thought, "was a corrupted country and people seemed to be happy with it."

When Syrians began protesting, he found ways to get involved: spreading support on Facebook and Twitter, raising money for Islamic Relief USA and Life for Relief and Development, and, finally, traveling with the Syrian American Medical Society to treat the sick and wounded.

He entered Northern Syria from Turkey, he said, slogging through a muddy forest to reach the makeshift field hospital near Latakia that had been opened by a mechanic — the only person in the village capable of tying off wounds.

By the time Masri arrived, the hospital had oxygen, an older-model electrocardiograph and a narrow range of medicines. In some cases, he said, it was not enough to save patients he could have treated easily in Baltimore.

He saw 70 to 100 patients per day, he said, many with chronic diseases such as hypertension or diabetes, others with hepatitis-A from contaminated water or hypothermia from the cold.

"Training in the United States, you hear about maybe a homeless guy going to the hospital with frostbite," he said. But Syria "was beyond what even in my wildest dreams I could imagine. ... The number of kids dead, just dead, from being cold, was overwhelming."

Steady aerial bombing brought more wounded.

Masri was playing soccer with a group of children at the start of one bombing. He tried to cut the game short.

"They said, 'Uncle, it's all right,'" he recalled. "It should never be normal for my 9-year-old nephew to get used to bombing. Here, if a shooting happens in Newtown, Conn., we console them in Texas. Yet there, it's fine to continue the game."

Masri travels around North America in his spare time, speaking in New England, Texas, California and Canada, raising money and asking hospitals to donate medicine and equipment. He plans to return to Syria in November.

Masri believes the United States is missing an opportunity to win the trust of Syrians and to help shape a post-Assad state. He wants Washington to arm the Free Syrian Army and to lead an effort to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.

"As much as the Syrian people appreciate aid, it doesn't change the situation on the ground," he said. "Without more weapons, without a no-fly zone, any advance you make, they bomb you."

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