Scared for their families and homeland, metro Detroiters aid in Syria's war

By NIRAJ WARIKOO | Detroit Free Press | Published: February 4, 2013

Over the last year, Dr. Ammar Sukari of West Bloomfield pleaded with his father to leave his home in the city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria. The civil war that had engulfed other parts of the country was creeping toward the Middle East country's largest city.

Despite the increasing dangers, the father told his 37-year-old son over the phone: I don't want to leave. I'd rather die here than move from my family home.

On Dec. 29, Sukari's father -- a 68-year-old retired elementary school principal -- was shot dead by a sniper as he walked toward an Army checkpoint.

"My dad is just one story out of more than 60,000 stories," Sukari said, referring to the number of Syrians killed since the conflict there started nearly two years ago. "But when it happens to a family member, you really feel it."

For thousands of Syrian Americans across Michigan, the civil war has taken an emotional toll as they watch the destruction of their native land and worry about family and friends there. Satellite TV and social media have brought this conflict closer to home, enabling Syrian Americans to monitor the daily violence as the Syrian army battles with rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

They've responded with millions of dollars of aid, political pressure and, in some cases, by risking their own lives. Hundreds of Syrian Americans from Michigan, including about 50 doctors, have traveled to Syria and neighboring countries to care for patients or to deliver supplies -- dodging bombs and bullets to help out.

About 10,000 Syrian Americans live in Michigan, a third of them born in Syria, with the largest concentration in metro Detroit and Flint, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There is a wide range of views over the war among them, reflecting the diverse makeup of Syria itself. The Sunnis, who make up about three-quarters of Syria's population, are the driving force behind the rebellion. Some members of Syrian minority groups, such as Shi'as and Christians, are wary of the opposition because they fear what might happen if Assad's secular government is overthrown by the majority Sunnis.

What's happening there

Walking on a hill to the city of Ariha in northern Syria one day in December, Abdullah Aldahhan and fellow relief workers spotted a convoy of government army tanks on the main road below them.

"You could see the top of the tank (gun turret) spin around and fire at us," recalled Aldahhan, 24, of Detroit. They scurried to hide behind trees; the tank shells landed a safe distance away.

Aldahhan's narrow escape in the Idlib province illustrates the dangers that metro Detroiters are facing as they work in a war zone. But the threats haven't deterred them. Aldahhan, a medical student, has made two trips to Syria and plans to go back.

"We had so many close calls," he said. "But we have to help. The Syrians feel like they've been rejected by the whole world, that no one is caring or helping."

Born in the U.S. to Syrian immigrants, Aldahhan said he "never felt a connection to Syria" before spring 2011.

But after the uprising started, he knew he had to act. When he got a chance last year to help deliver medical supplies to Syrians with Muslims Without Borders, he seized upon the opportunity.

He said his trips in June and December were challenging and haunting. Sleeping on the roof of a house in the Idlib province in Syria last June, Aldahhan could see bombs exploding around him in an area where his ancestors hailed from.

"The sky was raining shells," he recalled. "The whole city was flashing. It hurt because I have family there, friends there."

During that trip, Aldahhan helped deliver $200,000 of HemCon bandages that stop bleeding. Back then, the border and Idlib area were still under the control of the Syrian army, and so the mission was risky. One time, they were chased by Turkish troops near the border, he said.

In December, Aldahhan returned to Syria, this time to Aleppo, helping deliver blankets and boxes of food.

The border crossing and parts of Syria were now under the control of the rebel Free Syrian Army, so entering and moving around was easier than in the June trip. "The FSA, they provided protection; they helped us out," he said.

Like Aldahhan, Dr. Abdalmajid Katranji felt compelled to act. The trauma surgeon from Lansing has been to Syria three times to help perform surgery in makeshift hospitals.

"As an American, it's important that I help, that the Syrians see that Americans are helping," said Katranji, 38, born in the U.S. to Syrian immigrants. "If I could afford it, I'd be there all the time."

Katranji spent a week in Syria in December, preforming emergency surgeries in a makeshift hospital inside a school: He pulled out shrapnel, mended torn nerves and tendons and repaired abdominal walls. He also taught Syrians about medical procedures and helped collect data to assess needs for relief efforts.

The FSA, which is largely Sunni, provided protection for the relief work, but Katranji stressed that he and others took care of everyone in need, regardless of background.

"In the hospitals, I have taken care of Alawites, Shi'as, Sunnis, atheists, Christians," said Katranji. "There are no restrictions on who you can and cannot take care of."

When he meets with Syrians inside the country, he said they tell him: "Do something. Tell the world what's happening."

Fight for the cause

At least $17 million has been raised by Syrian-American and Muslim groups in Michigan over the last two years to help the soaring number of refugees fleeing to nearby countries, according to interviews with local Syrian-American leaders. Syrian Christians are raising money for organizations such as International Orthodox Christian Charities. And individuals have given millions more on their own to assist relatives and friends as Syrians flee their homes.

More than 600,000 refugees have already fled the country, and there are up to 2 million displaced inside the country as Syria's infrastructure crumbles.

On the political front, local Syrian-American leaders opposed to Assad have held several rallies across metro Detroit, including outside the office of the Syrian consulate in Troy. And they are meeting regularly with U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., to map out a future without Assad.

Syrian Americans have set up several groups that allow Americans to fund aid for refugees and opposition fighters.

Yahya Basha of West Bloomfield has been working to end Assad's rule and bring democracy to Syria.

"He's terrorizing his own people," Basha said. "I never thought it would be this bad or horrible."

Bahsa, 65, met with National Security Council officials in November along with other Syrian Americans opposed to Assad's government. He's asking the U.S. government to further its support for the Syrian opposition.

"We trust the heart of the president," Basha said of President Barack Obama. But "we need him to act. Make it more of a priority."

Like Basha, Muna Jondy, 37, president of the Flint-based United for a Free Syria and one of 43 leaders with the Syrian National Council, doesn't support putting U.S. troops on the ground, but adds that "we do need to arm the Free Syrian Army."

Basha's sense of urgency is rooted in memories of his hometown in Syria, the city of Hama.

In 1982, that city rose up, but was crushed by Assad's father, Hafez Assad, whose military killed tens of thousands and then leveled the city. Basha recalled how Assad's military killed his sister's husband and his brother-in-law's brothers.

"I want to see Syria free from tyrants," Basha said.

Rouzana Hares, 39, of West Bloomfield was living in Hama during the crackdown of 1982. She cries when she talks about what happened then and what's happening today in Syria.

Over the last two years, she would sometimes lose contact with her parents in Hama, fearing the worst. Three weeks ago, they left Syria and now live in metro Detroit. They were among a number of Syrians escaping to Michigan.

The constant anxiety still takes a toll.

"These two years have changed us so much, we can't recognize ourselves anymore," Hares said.

For now, Hares has given up on politics, saying she and others have failed to persuade the U.S. government to intervene. She's instead focusing on relief work, helping to organize the distribution of about $129,000 a month for orphans through the Franklin-based Syrian Sunrise Foundation.

The foundation has raised about $7 million to help Syrians affected by the war. Life for Relief and Development, a Muslim charity based in Southfield, has distributed $6 million in aid, and the Plymouth-based Mercy-USA for Aid and Development is on the ground in Lebanon helping Syrian refugees. There are also other, smaller local efforts.

"We have to do something to keep sane," Hares said.

More Details: More about Syria and its people

Population: 23 million

Religion: 74 percent Sunni Muslim, 13 percent Shi'a Muslim (includes Alawis and Ismailis), 10 percent Christian, 3 percent Druze. The biggest Christian denomination is Greek Orthodox. Syrian President Bashar Assad is Alawite Shi'a.

Ethnicity: 90 percent Arab, 10 percent Kurds, Armenians and other

Syrian Americans

Population: There are about 192,000 Americans with Syrian ancestry, according to U.S. census figures. About 10,000 live in Michigan.

History: Syrians have lived in the U.S. for more than 120 years. In the late 19th Century, Syrian immigrants in New York City developed what was called Little Syria on Manhattan's Lower East Side. They also moved to Michigan, New Jersey, Massachusetts and California. The earlier immigrants were mostly Christians who used to live under the Ottoman Empire. But since the 1960s, a growing percentage of Syrian immigrants have been Muslim. In metro Detroit, there are several Syrian Orthodox churches and Sunni mosques with Syrian-majority congregations.

Notables of Syrian descent: Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Apple CEO Steve Jobs and singer Paula Abdul.


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