It’s loading day at Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM). Rita Zawaideh watches alongside a group of volunteers as a 40-foot container truck backs into a small Seattle street. The sidewalk is lined with boxes full of donated humanitarian goods, old bicycles, crutches and wheelchairs. They are part of a shipment headed to Jordan, where the supplies will be distributed to Syrian refugees.
According to the United Nations Office of Coordination of Human Affairs, the refugee crisis caused by the war in Syria is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the last 25 years. During the five years of the conflict, more than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives and more than 4.8 million have been forced to flee their country under threats of bombings. Over 13.5 million people have been displaced from their homes — that’s nearly 20 times the number of people currently living in Seattle.
For the last five years, the small Seattle nonprofit, SCM, has mobilized volunteers around the world to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees living in dire conditions at camps in Jordan and Greece.
Entrepreneur and longtime activist, Zawaideh is the founder of SCM.
“I have lived in Syria during the time of the first war of the father,” says Zawaideh, referring to the similarly violent Syrian conflict that occurred during the reign of the father of the current president, Bashar al Assad. “I know what it’s like to have a barrel of a tank in your living-room window and people being killed so that [when] I am walking down the street, I am actually literally walking over bodies.” Jordanian-American, Zawaideh spent about 10 years in Syria and saw the toll of war firsthand.
Zawaideh was determined to do something when the current conflict began, so she returned to Jordan to see how she could help.
“At that point, I ended up meeting some Syrian-American doctors that were there,” says Zawaideh. “They were trying to do the same thing as I was.”
The group of doctors and Zawaideh decided to collaborate, which led to Zawaideh establishing SCM Medical Missions.
“We started doing medical missions every 45 days into Jordan. And we did that for about four years, going out with the doctors that would volunteer.”
I know what it’s like to have a barrel of a tank in your living-room window and people being killed...
With no end to the Syrian conflict in sight, the refugees are in a precarious position.
“We know this is going to be more permanent,” says Zawaideh. “We have no idea if it’s a year, two years, what’s going to happen. So, we have established a school, we have established a clinic [at the camps].”
Along with doctors, SCM also organizes volunteers from around the world to go on humanitarian missions to help refugees living in the camps. Sarah Hassaine was one of the volunteers on an SCM medical mission to Greece. During her one-week mission, Hassaine worked at three refugee camps: Iliadis, Frakapor, and Karamanlis.
“I think the challenge also — when you’re a volunteer — is that [refugees] turn to you for answers,” says Hassaine.
“They’ll ask you, ‘When are we leaving? When are we moving? Do you know when the borders are going to open?’ and it can be hard because you don’t have those answers.”
Aside from working as a translator at the clinic, Sarah taught at the camp school.
Back in Seattle, a team of volunteers is preparing the next shipment of goods to the refugee camps.
The boxes they are packing include clothing, blankets, school bags and school supplies — all donated by individuals and organizations from across the U.S.
Linda Richmond is managing the current shipment at SCM. She first began working with the organization as a volunteer about a year ago.
Richmond picks up a handmade backpack out of one of the boxes. “These bags are made by people from all over the country, [working] with Quilts Beyond Borders, QBB,” she says.
Along with kids’ backpacks, QBB has also sent boxes full of handmade quilts, and hand-knit clothes.
“They put little tags on them [with notes saying] ‘from Aunt Mary’, you know ‘we love you’, ‘we are thinking of you.’” Says Zawaideh.
Another organization has donated crutches, wheelchairs and bicycles.
SCM Medical Missions has been sending shipments like these to refugees across the ocean about every three months, depending on funding and amount of donations received.
On loading day, a team of volunteers has gathered in Seattle to help load the collected donations onto the container, which will make its way to Jordan after a journey spanning months.
Zawaideh and her team has been working nearly fulltime for about five years now. When asked how long they are prepared to continue their work, Zawaideh answers, “As long as it takes, you can’t give up.” She pauses and adds, “[until] we see that the world has finally decided to do something [to change the situation for the refugees].”
@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is an award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places, and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. Laila is the series producer for Borders & Heritage, which features stories of immigrant and refugee experience in the Pacific Northwest and for Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. She also produces stories for IN Close and produced for PIE. Laila's video stories have appeared on KCTS 9, PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art Beat, The Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES, and Pakistan's daily Dawn.More stories by Laila Kazmi