Helping the cause in their Syrian homeland

Marylanders send aid, lobby U.S. to boost support for opposition

  • Dr. Hassan Masri has traveled to Syria to treat the wounded from the two-year-old conflict.
Dr. Hassan Masri has traveled to Syria to treat the wounded from… (Gene Sweeney Jr. / Baltimore…)
July 07, 2013|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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