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A Lebanese home in northern Lebanon that hosted Syrian refugees.

Syrian-American community responds to Syrian humanitarian crisis

by Dana Ballout
Jan 19, 2012

Sana doesn’t want her real name used. Her mother just traveled to Syria and she “would like her to come back,” she said.

Sana, a Chicago medical practitioner, is from Homs, a city in Syria that has become notorious for its severe violence and dire humanitarian crisis.

"The people of Homs are under siege and the city is disaster-stricken,” Imad Ghalioun, an MP from Homs, told Al-Arabiya television recently. “There is no electricity, piles of garbage fill the streets.  . . . The sounds of shelling all night terrify children.”

Sana’s cousins and close friends are in Homs.

“The first thing I do in the morning is check the Facebook group of Homs,” she said. “We are living this day and night. … This is our life now.”

One of Sana’s cousins was recently killed by a sniper outside a mosque in Syria. He was targeted after he was heard calling for blood donations and aid for the wounded in his village, she said.

“It’s getting closer and closer to home,” she said.

Inspired by the wave of revolution sweeping across the Arab world, Syrians began taking to the streets in March 2011 protesting against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Ten months later, the Syrian uprisings continue in the face of fierce government crackdowns. Syrian fatalities had reached 5,000 by the middle of December 2011, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Al-Assad refuses to step down, asserting that his government is implementing reforms.

“Today, we are dealing with two aspects of internal reform: the first is political reform and the second is fighting terrorism which has spread recently to different parts of Syria,” the Syrian president said in his latest public address.

The Chicago-area Syrian community is substantial, with 3,500 native-born Syrians living in Cook County, along with another 2,400 of Syrian descent, according to the most recent U.S. census data. In Chicago and the south suburbs of Bridgeview, where many Syrian-Americans live, the community has been mobilizing support for the Syrians on the ground through humanitarian aid and political advocacy.

The Zakat Foundation for America, a Muslim charity foundation, recently sent a 40-foot container of humanitarian aid worth $150,000 dollars to Syrian refugees in Turkey that included clothes, medical supplies and toys for the children.

“The container arrived in Turkey two or three days ago,” said Feras Abdelrahman, program coordinator for Zakat.

The foundation also helps refugees in Lebanon, whose conditions are far worse than those in Turkey, by offering them free medical assistance, Abdelrahman said.

According to a recent UN Human Rights Council report, Syrian refugees have reached 8,000 in Turkey, 3,400 in Lebanon and 1,000 in Jordan.

In addition to Zakat, the Syrian American Medical Society headed by Illinois physician Dr. Zaher Sahloul, is also contributing to the humanitarian efforts. The organization recently sent a medical container worth a million dollars.

"But it is stuck with Syrian customs", Sahloul said.

In fact, medical practitioners in Syria are in dire need of support.

“Wounded protestors face serious – and often fatal – repercussions when they seek medical attention,” according to a report by Physicians for Human Rights. “Further, medical personnel who treat these individuals risk both their careers and personal safety.”

However, humanitarian assistance is not all the Syrian community in Chicago is doing.

Many from the community have met with U.S. policymakers and have had communication with White House aides to advocate for stronger measures to be taken against the Syrian government, Sahloul said.

“Rhetoric alone will not work. Sanctions alone will not work. We have to take it to the next step,” Sahloul said, adding that sanctions against Iraq lasted 12 years and regime never changed.

He also expressed hope that the U.S. administration would place more diplomatic pressure on Syria to succumb to a peaceful transition of power to whomever the Syrian people choose.

"We can't just wait and observe what's happening in Syria," he said.