It was early March 2013, and over 200 Syrian-Americans had gathered in a ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston. The gala was a benefit for the Maram Foundation, a nonprofit organization operating out of Reyhanli, Turkey, providing humanitarian aid for Syrians – namely, the thousands of internally displaced people near the Syrian village of Atma.
Maram was founded in October 2012. Its physical presence on the ground has made it prominent among the dozens of nonprofits started in the last two years, as Syrian expats scramble to alleviate their homeland’s humanitarian crisis.
But being on the ground in war-ravaged Syria comes with a price. Maram’s founder, 34-year-old Syrian-American Yakzan Shishakly, knows this all too well. Now living full-time on the Turkish-Syrian border, he runs his foundation’s humanitarian and medical relief programs, which includes managing the Olive Tree Camp, near the town of Atma. Just over the Syrian border, it’s the country’s largest camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), housing more than 20,000 men, women and children.
Although he is a firsthand witness to the plight of thousands of Syrians and has become an expert on relief work in the region, Shishakly did not get onstage at his foundation’s Houston benefit. He watched the event like an outsider, shy and keeping his distance from the spotlight. Clean-shaven and wearing a suit – a departure from his camp uniform, pants and boots – he seemed to be a transplant in that ballroom, a world away from where I had seen him at work two months before in the hills of Idlib province.
The day after the benefit, Shishakly speeds along wide, smooth, Texas highways just a bit slower than he had on the bumpy Turkish roads leading to Olive Tree camp. “Did you feel out of place last night?” he asks. I know exactly what he means. Though it has been two years since the revolution began, we still find it difficult to maneuver between the roles we have assumed. We fundraise, deliver aid, practice activism and media awareness and, of course, lead our “normal” American lives.
Our stories are similar to those of so many other Syrians, whether inside the country or living abroad. From the tailor picking up a gun to the beautician training as a sniper, to expats across the ocean taking crash courses in aid relief and political lobbying, we are taking on responsibilities for which we were not prepared. All the while, men and women like Shishakly know that our people’s lives are at stake.
Shishakly grew up in Damascus in a family with deep political roots. His grandfather Adib was a military leader and president of Syria in 1953. His older brother, the grandfather’s namesake, Adib, is a prominent figure in the current Syrian political opposition. Yakzan, who owns an air-conditioning company in Houston, situated himself far from the world of political conferences and settled instead in the trenches, as close as
possible to the people who had lost everything.
Many people close to Shishakly express surprise at the role he has adopted. His involvement in the revolution began by organizing protests and planning fundraisers in the US, but during a trip to southern Turkey last year, he visited the few thousand stranded people across the border who had fled their homes and were denied entry to Turkey as refugees. They were living among the olive trees, without tents, water or food. Shishakly and his friends delivered the aid that they could and came back to the U.S. But he knew that he had to return. “We can do much better as Syrians for our people,” he said then.
In Houston, he raised money for tents and registered Maram as a nonprofit organization. He named it after a 4-year-old girl who was paralyzed after being injured by shelling in her village. Shishakly began to move back andforth between Reyhanli and Houston. Slowly the trips back to the U.S. became shorter and less frequent until, as he says, “I realized that I live here now,” on the outskirts of his homeland.
Shishakly’s day-to-day life is a continuous loop of fulfilling the camp’s never-ending demands and needs. In addition to the basic necessities, including food, water, shelter, medical care and educational programs,
Shishakly also provides security for the IDPs.
It is a struggle to balance the inside-outside factor even from the ground. Aid profiteering has become a booming business in towns that border camps. Shishakly is often in a situation of negotiation and confrontation with the villagers surrounding the camp, who eye the aid coming through the
border as rightfully theirs.
His role is difficult and can be dangerous. But in the months since he arrived, he has slowly changed from the Syrian-American outsider to a trusted advocate for the people in the camp. In helping them, he became “one of them.”
Olive Tree Camp -First Aid Graduation – Credit Maram Foundation
Long-term planning is almost impossible when nothing is static in the camp. The number of displaced arrivals grows by about 100 people every day. Aerial bombardment is constant, even in the liberated northern territories. And the flow of aid is erratic. Each day brings a wave of new people seeking shelter, new tents to erect and new mouths to feed. As time lags on and new arrivals rest among the olive trees, the camp’s earlier settlers grow weary and demanding.
Shishakly and his growing team of volunteers have begun to implement programs to alleviate people’s sense of helplessness and restore their dignity and pride. Recently, a group of 40 women and 20 men completed a first aid course and were awarded certificates. For some of the graduates, this was the first “diploma” they had ever received. “They felt like they existed again,” Shishakly said.
This group will continue their first aid education while working as paid volunteers inside the camp. Shishakly maintains a “help the people help themselves” philosophy. When the violence ends, he hopes to transition people back to their homes as equipped citizens ready to rebuild the country.
One of the devastating symptoms of the displaced is that they themselves have become outsiders to the world. They are hardened by the violence they have suffered and witnessed. They are frustrated with the journalists who visit, take pictures and conduct interviews to write yet another report on the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, while their desperate situation remains unchanged. Many of them, now jaded, simply turn away from the cameras and notebooks.
Shishakly is similarly disappointed – in the political opposition, the endless power plays, empty talk and false promises. As the camp grows, so does his frustration as a result of watching glacial political developments and the trickle of aid. But walking Atma’s dirt lanes, Shishakly seems to be immune to the misery. Among the tents, he is usually surrounded by people, blending in with his beard and rugged clothes.
During my visit in late December, I would come back from the camp and tell him the stories I had heard inside the tents. He only partially listened. He has heard too much and seen too much. When I told him about meeting Manar, a woman who lost her two children in a tent fire last year, he told me that he had taken the children to the hospital, later claimed their burned corpses, and then arranged their burial. He had done the things that their mother couldn’t, and performed the duties of their absent father.
I asked him how he dealt with these responsibilities. He responded with a sentence that has since become his trademark: “Even when your heart is breaking with pain and sadness, you have to keep a smile on your face because your smile may be someone else’s hope.”
A few weeks ago, we are on the phone. It’s early morning at Olive Tree. Mid-chat, Shishakly receives a call from the camp. There has been another fire, this time in a village nearby. Because the official Bab al-Hawa crossing is closed, the injured family is rushed through his camp to receive emergency care across the border in a Turkish hospital. Men are yelling for an ambulance. “Come fast!” someone screams. “They are my family. They are dying in front of me.”
Shishakly tells me that he has to go. He’s frustrated. “I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be anymore,” he says, before he hangs up. “Am I a camp director, crisis manager, emergency operator, counselor? I don’t know.”
I sit holding my now silent phone, facing the glowing laptop in my living room. As usual, it’s past midnight here in the West. Upstairs, my own family is sleeping. In a few hours it will be time to assume my “normal”role in the U.S. and live another day pretending that I don’t feel out of place.
I know there are hundreds of Syrians across the world sitting just like me, with Skype messages pouring in and the emails that don’t stop. Screens glow with stories to be written, videos to be watched, news to be shared, funds to be raised, skills to be learned. Another child needs a prosthetic limb, another activist needs political asylum, another contact has been martyred.
The list of duties piles up; they are responsibilities that were not supposed to be ours, but now they are. Each day we convince ourselves that if we just hang in there for a little bit longer, these duties will be crossed off and we can finally close this brutal chapter of our lives. But with each day, the opposite seems to be true. This is our new reality.
Although Shishakly can’t hear me, I answer his question: Neither do I.
In the darkness, I think about my friend across the world, beginning every morning with 20,000 hungry mouths on his mind. Today he started with another fire, and he may end it by collecting scorched bodies of dead children. I know that, despite it all, he will find some way to place a smile on his face.
We have been reduced to frantically placing Band-Aids over our country’s hemorrhaging wounds. Somewhere along the way, we were pulled in and morphed from spectators to actors. We now bear this destiny of personal and collective scars as we navigate between roles and identities. A rare few rose up to the challenge, bluntly sacrificing one part of themselves for another. In the process, they found their unquestionable place.
A few days after the Houston benefit, I messaged Yakzan, asking if he was home yet. His answer came moments later, from Syria: “Yes. ”
*For more information on the Maram Foundation and the Olive Tree Camp, please visit www.maramfoundation.org. *