About five or six years ago my husband's daughter was living and working in Rome and in a close relationship with a young Syrian man who was working and going to school there. Neither of them spoke each other's native tongue, but it didn't matter because they were able to communicate well in Italian and learn about each other's values, their hopes and their dreams. Our daughter is Jewish. The young man is a Suni Muslim. Over time their relationship morphed from romantic to platonic, and today she still calls him one of her closest and dearest friends. While she now lives in America, he still lives in Rome.
During the course of their Rome relationship, she traveled to Syria several times to learn more about his country and experience some of the Middle Eastern customs which were so different from hers. She has always been drawn to people who come from different parts of the world. She is eager to know them as individuals and not make judgments based on a person's ethnicity or the color of his or her skin. Rather than emphasize people's differences, she prefers to find similarities to identify with and keep an open mind.
One of her visits was a two month stay to immerse herself in Syrian life and try to learn the complicated Arabic language. During this extended time, she saw a lot of her best friend's family, whom she admired and enjoyed spending time with. Like most Syrians, they place great value on family, tradition, duty, and most of all they are very, very proud. Middle Eastern families are generally large and this family was no exception -- three and four generations living happily together under one crowded roof. When our daughter visited there, they wrapped their arms around her and brought her into their fold, treating her as though she was one of their own, even though they knew she was an American Jew. This Suni Muslim family knew there were huge differences between them, but like our daughter, they preferred to find similarities and keep an open mind.
Fast forward five years. It's September, 2012 and Syria is in the midst of a devastating civil war, almost reaching genocidal proportions. Under the repressive dictatorship of the Assad family regime, political tensions are the result of opposing views of the ruling Alawite minority and the Suni Muslim majority. During the Arab Spring of 2011, pro-democracy protests in Syria began in early March. Massive anti-government demonstrations quickly spread throughout the country and the Assad regime responded with violent attacks on civilians, slaughtering innocent men, women and children with a death toll reported by the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies at around 14,000 people. The Houla and the al-Qubayr Massacre on June 7th killed over 200 civilians, many of them women and children who were executed by gunshots to the back of the head. Eye witnesses testified that the Syrian Army and Assad's militias were responsible for these mass killings. Every attempt to stop death and destruction, short of international military intervention, has failed. After months of trying to negotiate peace, even a United Nations humanitarian committee headed by Kofi Anan admitted there was nothing they could do. Rather than risk a life of torture or even death, tens of thousands of Syrians have fled their homeland and have gone to neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to live as refugees.
Because of our daughter's close relationship with this Syrian family, we followed the war and what was going on there in a much more personal and intimate way. Every day we would ask her how they were and what she knew. Her grief and sadness over what this family must be going through occupied the majority of her thoughts, and she was extremely worried that something awful might happen to them. They had to flee their home and move to a safer section of Damascus and over time feared for their lives and looked for a way to safely leave the country. We shared her anguish as we were reminded of Hitler's assassination of millions of Jews in World War II and in my mind's eye, I could see my mother as a little girl leaving her bombed out village during the war in northern Greece.
Desperate to help in whatever way she could, our daughter asked her closest relatives if they would be willing to give some money to help this family escape. It was a long shot, but she gave it a try. Within hours of her plea, she received $400 from a few family members who wanted to do whatever they could even though they were Jewish and knew the political tensions. When I learned of this admirable endeavor, a lightbulb turned on. Why not use my skills as a professional fundraiser and write a letter to sympathetic and compassionate people we know and ask if they wanted to get involved in this life-saving effort. This is what I wrote:
Dear Family and Friends:
This may be one of the most important and urgent fundraising letters I have ever written because there is so much riding on it and there is so little time.
We’ve all been hearing, almost daily, about the plight of Syrian civilians dying and displaced in the midst of a brutal civil war. While we may feel a real sense of sadness, this is a crisis in a faraway land that does not touch us personally. But it happens that I do have a personal connection with a Syrian family in desperate straits.
The best friend of my husband's daughter lives in Rome, but his family in Syria, whom she has visited there in peaceful times, has lost everything, fear for their lives, and are now desperate to leave. Our daughter has written details about their situation in an e-mail that I have copied below.
When she told me about this desperate and life- threatening situation affecting her close friend’s immediate family, I was very saddened and extremely moved by their plight. I felt that something should be done and I wanted to be a part of it.
After thinking about it for a while I said to her, "Let's try and see if we can raise the money we need from our family and friends to help the family get out of Syria as soon as possible."
I am now coming to you in hopes that you will want to be part of this life-saving effort to help a displaced Syrian (Sunni Muslim) family in desperate need. Every day in the news and on TV, we hear stories about and see photos of people being massacred in Syria and now we all have a chance to get involved on a very specific personal level. Our daughter has raised $400 so far, but has a long way to go and funds are urgently needed because there's a very good chance that the airport in Damascus will be closed soon and it will be difficult for people to leave.
What follows is her letter describing the situation to you and the proposed plan for them to leave Syria. If you are as moved as I am, please follow your heart and consider contributing to this humanitarian effort.
Dear Friends of Pam and Dad,
As some of you know, one of the most important people in my life is trying desperately to get his family out of Syria to safety. His family is from a district in Damascus called “Qaboun”, and it is one of the most dangerous areas in Syria to be living at the moment. It has been bombed many times by the government because many protestors and anti-government fighters have been active in this area. I have spent much time with this family in Syria (both over my winter vacation there before the fighting broke out, and my summer months there while I was studying at the University of Damascus), and the thought of this beautiful family (who took very good care of me during my stay there) in this situation with no money, little food, and serious danger is truly unimaginable and beyond disturbing.
Over the past months, his family has had to leave their home and travel to other areas of of Damascus to avoid the fighting. Until now, they have been able to go back to their home in the periods when the fighting has died down. However, now that the situation is life threatening, they have taken only a few personal belongings and have fled their zone for good. Their goal is to flee Syria and take the entire family to Egypt where they know a family who will take them and where it is less expensive to live. I am trying to raise funds so that their son who lives in Rome can purchase airline tickets for his family. His father ran out of money for the family a long time ago. There are 12 members of the family, ranging in age from 74 to two years of age, who are trying to leave.
The decision to try and take refuge in Egypt is because life there is considered inexpensive compared to other countries around them (and definitely cheaper than European countries) and because they will not have to worry about visas. They also have a place where they can stay upon their arrival (a friend has offered his house to the family). All of them now have valid passports and are just waiting to get tickets.
Currently the family is in an area outside of Damascus (Quatanah, about 60 chilometres from Damascus) where there is no electricity, no internet, and very little phone service. Supermarkets everywhere are missing staple food items. Some of the supermarkets have even been completely destroyed. All of the information that I have about what is happening is coming through my best friend, who has been in constant touch with his brother and father up until now.
In the family's district the other day, there was a public execution of 48 people who were suspected to be anti-government “terrorists”. My friend's brother just told him that the pro-government militias are coming by in cars and tossing out dead bodies in the streets with knives still stuck in them in order to terrorize the people. There is no possible way for them to go back to that area, and at this point we are looking to help get them out of the country as quickly as possible before the airport closes. I have heard that the airport will not be open for very much longer. If we raise more money than the cost of the tickets, the family will use the money to survive in the first months of their stay in Egypt.
From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate you taking the time to read the above. I hope that we may be able to make a difference in this family's lives during this horrible time. The first available flight out as of today with enough seats for his family is September XXX
The response to our letter was immediate and very generous. We were incredulous when the checks immediately began to arrive in the mail. One of our daughter's friends gave almost $2000. Several gave $500 and many others made $200, $100 and $50 contributions. In the meantime, we learned that the Syrian government would not let citizens fly out of Syria without a round trip ticket, so our costs went up substantially, but since we were still receiving generous contributions, we were very optimistic that we could be successful. Within five days we had sufficient funds to purchase twelve (round trip) tickets on Egypt Air from Damascus to Cairo. We immediately booked 12 seats on the September XXX plane. We put a 24-hour hold on the tickets until we could transfer the money to the son in Rome who would buy the tickets since it was best if Americans were not obviously involved. Transferring the money turned out to be relatively easy, but paying for the tickets was complicated because there wasn't anyone we knew in Rome who had a credit card with enough credit to pay this whopping bill. We were afraid to pay in cash because there was less of a paper trail, and the seats might be sold a second time to another Syrian family who was willing to pay more money and by someone at the airlines who could be bribed. And then we'd be out of luck. Desperate to do something rather than do nothing, the son in Rome took a huge leap of faith and bought the twelve tickets with cash. After we heard this, we nervously crossed our fingers, prayed to whatever god would listen, and waited until September XXX.
Of course, we were very worried that something terrible might happen to someone in the family in the week before September 6th. As it turned out, our fears were relevant because one afternoon while the parents were out on the street searching for food, they were caught in a heavy cross fire not far from where they were staying. Somehow, by the grace of God, they managed to get themselves to safety without any serious repercussions other than being horribly frightened after going through this life-threatening ordeal.
The day before their flight, the family returned to their real home to gather a few personal belongings and to sleep there that night, as this location was much closer to the Damascus airport than the temporary place where they had been staying. They knew it might be dangerous to go back to their real home because of all the fighting that had taken place in that area, but they took the risk hoping that being closer to the airport might mean avoiding military police who would ask too many questions and take up too much valuable time.
It was hard for us to sleep that night. With a nine hour time difference between California and Syria, my husband and I hoped we would hear some news when we woke up on September XXX.
As soon as I opened my eyes, I ran to my home office, turned on my computer, and this is what I read:
I am so happy...
They made it to the airport and are now ON THE PLANE.
The flight has yet to take off but they are all on it. Can't believe we all did it. !!!!!!
I will update you once family calls their son in Rome from Cairo. :)
When I read this, I felt such a huge relief and was so happy that I let out a Tarzan-like yell, but there was no time to shed any tears. There were other anxious donors sitting by their computers also waiting to hear the news.
When they logged on, this is what they read in an email letter from our daughter:
I wanted to let you all know right away the wonderful news that I heard from my best friend in Rome today. I can now confirm to you that we OFFICIALLY did it. His entire family made it to the airport today and left Damascus on Egypt Air. The flight has landed in Cairo and now this family can begin to settle into their new home.
Yesterday I read an article on reuters about refugees flowing into different parts of Europe. It featured the story of a Syrian couple who fled to Sweden. I wanted to share with you the end of the article because it really struck me:
"Everyone who comes here is losing something," said Antony Sawires, who reached Sweden with his family a month ago after leaving a house in Damascus and a job in the communications industry. "But we win the safety."
Though counting himself lucky after seeing two cars blow up before he left his home, he was still adjusting to life as a refugee: "I will never have the same lifestyle here," he said as he waited to be called forward to fill out more paperwork.
But his wife, who did not give her name as her eyes filled with tears, was quick to reassure him: "Home," she said, "Is where you feel safe."
-(from "Syrians fleeing war start to trickle into Europe" by Mia Shanley for Reuters)
And I think that is really such an insightful and true statement. We begin to feel at home in places that we feel safe, both physically and psychologically. What I find most beautiful about what you have all done is that you have given an opportunity to this family to have a home again. I will never forget what you have all done for my best friend and his family....
I am still amazed by what we were able to do in such a short amount of time. We raised more than $7000 in one week and were able to dramatically change and may have even saved twelve people's lives. I raised millions and millions of dollars during my professional career, but I don't remember having the same impact or level of satisfaction. I'm not denouncing my work, but the opportunity to do something that has such an immediate and satisfying effect doesn't often come along when one is a retired fundraiser. As one of my good friends and donors to the project so eloquently said, "We couldn't save a nation, but we saved a family."
The Syrian family, now safe in Egypt, is overwhelmed with gratitude as is their son in Rome . The following letter that the son wrote and translated from Italian by our daughter says it all.
This message of mine is a message of thanks to all of you dear people…
Even if I put so much energy in finding the words of thanks and appreciation, I would say that I could never return your generous gesture, you who gave me back hope, and you the reason I achieved something that in the beginning seemed impossible.
With this good will of yours, you reinforced the idea that unity between people makes miracles happen and makes the achievement of difficult things possible....
This generosity shows the sense of humanity that you have inside yourselves.
My friends, I was amazed by your immediate response, and deeply moved that you helped me without even having ever met me.
This gesture of yours threw me into another dimension, making me believe that race, religion, nationality are not divisions.
You confirmed that all of us are united by the word "humanity", and you enriched this word, and you materialized it into a reality.
I can imagine the smiles on the faces of my family members--especially the younger ones--knowing that they will be able to leave.
In the name of my family I thank you from the bottom of my heart. A special thank you to Pam and Bruce, and I will not forget the enormous work and energy that my beloved and best friend put in to this.
I love you all.
I hope one day that I will be able to do something as important for somebody else as you have done for me.
August 30, 2012