Syrian American in Cincinnati: making a difference at home and in Syria

About five years ago, concerned Syrian Americans who called Cincinnati home, founded the Syrian American Foundation. With the uprising going on in the Middle East, this new organization was supposed to assist with the new changes that would have happened, helping to guide the transition of the new society. 

Five years later, instead of transforming into a new, democratic society, Syria is the center of the humanitarian crisis of our generation, with mounting civilians toll, unprecedented migration, and stories after stories of trauma, grief, and never ending war.

Dima Almeniawi, an architect by training, is now leading the Syrian American Foundation, to continue to support the communities now left behind in Syria, displaced, and unable to get out of the country. While the horrifying stories of refugees crossing the borders and the sea might have captivated us and shaken out humanity, the refugees were the 'lucky ones' who have resources to take the journey, they have enough savings to pay the smugglers and to go to the unknown with the hope of a new life in peace.  

The situation for those left behind in Syria is far more complicated. Their homes might have been destroyed. Schools are closed. Everything is uncertain when there is war. The country is under international embargo. When the government that supposed to protect the people is the one committing the most astrocities, there's almost nowhere to find help. The UN OCHA ? The two most active organizations working in the country are International Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent. 

 

Saf is working with a local organization (Rahma?) to send winter clothing, school supplies to the IDPs. Their last shipments was just arrived... Right now they are working to fill up another container before winter months come. (Please contact me if you have something to share). 

The Case of Sending Goods

in the humanitarian assistance training 101, sending goods overseas that cost more shipping cost and time is not the best idea. In many cases such as natural disasters it is better to send monetary funds that will be spent in the local economy rather than sending things from abroad that people may or may not need. However, there are certain cases that this may not apply: to avoid corruption and in the case of severe conflict such as what's going on in Syria.  

In addition to sending winter gears and clothing, SAF also sends backpack with school supplies, which children on the move desperately need to continue their education. 

I visited the storage area where SAF prepares their shipping. The request are winter clothing and gear for all sizes, either new or gently used, backpack with school supplies, diapers, medications, etc. a volunteer was working there, a mom, who wa going to stay until school was out. sometimes it is difficult to arrange a work day where everyone will be working either

Dima also works with Syrian American Engineer Association to continue improve the life of people in Syria, despite of the war. Last year, they work on providing water supply in many villages, and this year, they are working on a more effective shelter.  

While one refugee family has arrived in Cincinnati, the next family won't be here for awhile because of the State Govt. rejection. The State doesn't have any authority to decide on refugee resettlement, but they can defer the funding, which will make it very difficult for the program to go on. so far, SAF has been working with Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio to help the family to resettle one family in the area. The process have been challenging for SAF whose probably the only organization that can help ease the transition for the family since they share the same culture. 

 

How to Engage with Refugees and Immigrants (Opinion's my own)

These past three weeks has been really hard on us, to think of the state of the world and how far we have come.

I'm taking a deep breath every time I listen to the news, trying to find the bright side of it, where God is working. Questioning, what is God is up to. 

I'm not religious, but I do follow Christ. By following Christ I meant that I'm working my hardest to someday be like Him, and I have a long long long way to go. 

My path had taken me back to Cincinnati; this is home for the most part, but my home is also with my mom, sister, and brother who are in Indonesia. I am blessed to have two, where the refugees do not have any. My heart goes out to them. This is where Jesus' heart goes out too. To the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast, the homeless. 

A poster I designed for Cincinnati Red Cross, 2014.

A poster I designed for Cincinnati Red Cross, 2014.

Last week, I cancelled an opportunity to facilitate a simulation on refugee experience, it's a two hour session to experience the journey of people who flee their home to find peace, to may be a new home. I did this because, media, international organizations working with refugees, and Facebook, are probably already doing better in spreading awareness.  

But I was wrong. I am distraught by the actions of some of my fellow Christians, who thought that somehow the refugees are to blame for terrorist attacks. Please know that not all Christians think the same and the scriptures pointed to the opposite

This Sunday, a local church invited me to talk about engaging with immigrants and refugees. I applaud them to ponder on this, and to find ways where Jesus is. 

I have three years experience working with refugees in Cincinnati, and two years as Rotary Peace Fellow (North Carolina, and field experience in Geneva). 

Here's my two cents: 

I've seen Jesus in refugees and immigrants, just like I've seen his face in the people whose door I knocked to come to community meetings. If you are a human being, you are created in the image of God and Jesus loves you. Every single person matters to Jesus and that's how I try to see. But if they are like me, I have bad days and I have problems, so sometimes I got frustrated too when working with them, but that's why I need Jesus to help me everyday.

Just like us, each refugee has their own story, their own journey, and no matter how well the media try to define them, in the end, the person whose in front of me is the one I need to listen. And when language is a barrier I would try a different way.. Food may be? Sharing first? And for me these days is through sewing. And may be the conversations would be developed slowly, through relationships, through our actions. 

I tried to be genuine when interacting with people. I tried to  listen to see if they need any help, but know that they have something to offer. Just because a person doesn't speak English well doesn't mean that they don't have a clue. They are probably ahead of some of us who just mastered one language. And think about how far they've come to be in the other side of the world. They have seen our world, but have you seen theirs?

Our sewing group, Makers' Circle has started to sell our stuff at local craft fairs, to also raise awareness of what we are doing. At a local craft fair a month ago, a lady came up to me that she might have a Nepali neighbor based on how they raised chickens, and she was wondering if they run a barber shop in the garage??! Yes, those question marks are necessary. I suggested that she probably should talk to her neighbors, and may be get to know them a little bit better. Our prejudices prevents us from reacting with empathy, sometimes. And this is not okay. Why not view her curiosity as a learning opportunity instead of a judgement?

I've seen refugees and immigrants as partners instead of people we are trying to help. I've seen successful refugees who have become citizens, earned their degrees, got a job, got married, bought a house, through the whole path of the American Dream (but that's for another conversation).

I have no intention to convert anyone at my work. I only shared my personal believed when asked. My work is my prayer, my worship, and my motivation is to love them, as what had said in the bible. I worked at the Red Cross until this past March, and I knew the seven principles, one of them being a neutral organization where we treated every human being the same regardless of their beliefs, origins, and immigration status. 

The truth is, there's no mark on our head, or the color of our skim, or how we look, that tells you anyone here was a refugee. We're just two teams of winners of a national competition raising awareness about International Humanitarian Law. Circa 2013.

The truth is, there's no mark on our head, or the color of our skim, or how we look, that tells you anyone here was a refugee. We're just two teams of winners of a national competition raising awareness about International Humanitarian Law. Circa 2013.

I've worked with the most hard working people. At Red Cross, I administered a program for young people called International Humanitarian Law Peer Education program. The first year of the pilot, I was so blessed to meet with Maria, who happened to be at the school office when I came. Maria is the coordinator for ELL ( English Language Learners) and in her school there are 50 countries represented. She's the mother of the high school students I worked with, literally. She cares for them as if they are her own children. Her students are from all over the world: Senegal, Eritrea, Somalia, Burundi, Bhutan, Srilanka, and Colombia. We formed teams of students, trained them in IHL, and asked them to build their own project to raise awareness in IHL. They met almost every week for three months. One of them created a video about child soldiers in a month, wrote their own script, and had a couple of showing at their school, and handed out flyers at a local farmers market. These students are now US citizens, but they are proud of who they were as refugees. The more they learn about the state of the world the stronger is their desire to help. That year they were invited to go to DC to present their project.

I have never seen teenagers more inspiring. 

At Heartfelt Tidbits, our predominant clients are from Bhutan, though the organization work with refugees and immigrants from Somalia, Burundi, Mexico, etc.  This Friday I sat with a group in citizenship class, where we learned about the constitution, the founding fathers, the federalist papers, the bill of rights. And this Sunday, the ladies brought back the tote bags they sewn, that we will fill with towels, toiletries and food for the homeless. 

One of them might have been amused by the others (and where were her shoes, who is her mom? ). My point is, again. There's no difference; we're the same human beings.

One of them might have been amused by the others (and where were her shoes, who is her mom? ). My point is, again. There's no difference; we're the same human beings.

I am learning one word and two in Nepali in our sewing meetings. There are similar vocabularies of Bahasa Indonesia and Nepali, however, sometimes they meant slightly different things, I found it so funny. Learning about other languages will only expand our horizon, broaden our world view, and our understanding that there are so many different way of life God created, not just ours or what we know. In this day of overload news and how easy we can find information, fact check them, and filter them, ignorance is NOT bliss.

Refugees are just people like you and me. They do need help in the beginning, but they do have something to offer. To see them as a 'ministry' is not a genuine approach, they are not a field of mission, but more than ever they need peace and a friend. 

So how can we help them? 

Local resettlement organization such as Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio is often underfunded, under staffed, and lack of volunteers. 

Local churches sometimes have programs for refugees. If yours doesn't have one and would like to start one, I can help you find the right people to talk to, please contact me.

International organizations working with refugees all over the world need donations to continue to service them. Here's a comprehensive list.

For the Syrian war in particular, I wanted to invite you to pay attention also to the organizations working on the ground in Syria, providing day to day need of Syrian who cannot afford to flee. There are the ICRC and Syrian Red Crescent, and you can also research mission organizations currently working in the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq (I won't mention their names here).  The Syrian conflict has been going on for five years with no end in sight. Sending aids alone to organizations that constantly need them to help the people is not sustainable. It's not just world leaders who can make decisions and change the course of history, instead, it depends on all of us, through our collective voice. I speak up (too often, sometimes) about what I had in my mind. I educate myself about what's going on, fact-checking before sharing information. Just doing what I can where I am, and I am inviting you to do the same.