x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Samaritans in Syria inspire many to act - myself included

Syrians need basic necessities, like food and water, but they also need diversion from an ugly and harsh reality.

It all started with a single text message from a friend: "I am going to Syria tomorrow, let me know if you need me to visit your homes to check on them and your loved ones. If you need me to carry anything urgent, like medicine, let me know. I am taking two big bags of important supplies."

In times of peace, it is tradition for Arabs to carry "gifts" for relatives and friends whenever you happen to be travelling. Whenever I travelled between Saudi and Lebanon, I always had two suitcases - one bag for my belongings, and another for other people's stuff that had been requested by their loved ones.

So when I saw this message recently from a friend, it brought me back to 2003, when a friend and I did the exact same thing when we were planning a trip to war-ravaged Iraq. We met up with several Iraqi families in Canada and they drew us maps and directions to their homes in Baghdad, and gave us letters and gifts to give their relatives and friends.

My friend was well connected and came from an important Iraqi family. So I felt safe somehow, like this trip would be a breeze. It wasn't, of course. War was all around us. My heart sank each time I finally reached a place on a hand-drawn map, and the home marked on it was gone, reduced to a hill of rubble. Even when I dug in, looking for something to take back, I often couldn't find anything intact as the objects that survived were probably taken by whoever came upon them. The hardest part was later telling the hopeful families back in Canada the bad news.

I told my friend to expect all this and more when he journeys soon into Syria, a personal aid mission fraught with danger. Speculation that a "final battle" for Syria is looming means the danger he faces could be much worse than I saw in Iraq. Daily images and reports coming out of Syria show rows of killed Syrians, mainly children, wrapped in white kafan - a clean white perfumed shroud used to wrap a body before burial.

But none of these warnings register with those who insists that they "can't just sit and do nothing".

There have been many silent samaritans visiting Syrian refugee camps and even going into Syria with the sole purpose of "helping". Only after a doctor friend came back did I see on Facebook his photos and notes on the horrible state of hospitals and clinics in Syria. This surgeon, of Syrian Lebanese origin, took a month off from work and headed to a war zone and volunteered his time.

His family kicked up a fuss, and even called him "selfish" for putting his life at risk when he has a family to support in Saudi Arabia. But he did it, and his bravery inspired a group of his friends (many who are engineers) to contemplate how they, too, could help Syria - when the fighting is over.

"When it is completely over, it will be so overwhelming, we won't know where to start," said a friend who will be assessing his family's neighbourhood as a starting point.

People are hungry to help. Syria's Baath regime locked out many of its citizens from active participation in their country's development. Some have been exiled while others emigrated.

I know of westernised and Gulf nationals of Syrian origin who have been helping in the background, but are keeping a low profile as they don't want any repercussions on relatives who still live in Syria.

But it is not just Syrians helping Syrians. And it shouldn't be.

One idea I've had is to launch a reading and writing mission to Syria. I'll call it "operation fairy tale". The idea is that we would go to refugee camps and Syrian cities reading stories, donating books and notebooks and engaging children of all ages with a world of words.

Some might say this is the last thing Syrians need now; that what they need, and too often lack, are basic necessities like water and food. But any diversion from an ugly and harsh reality - if only for a few minutes - could do wonders.

And you never know. It might plant a seed of hope in someone's soul by simply showing that people cared enough simply to be there as they suffered.

 

Rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @Arabianmau