An Unusual Religious Alliance to Aid Refugees

Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians have come together to help displaced Syrians.

Op-ed in the Wall Street Journal

March 26, 2015 7:08 p.m. ET Last month I visited the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan known as Za’atari. With 80,000 occupants, the camp would be the fourth-largest city in Jordan. It occupies a vast desert plain, filled with endless rows of tents that are gradually being replaced with rows of metal-sided caravans. Za’atari is a dreary place, but it is teeming with resilient people. Residents of camps like Za’atari make up only 20% of the nearly four million refugees who have fled Syria. The rest live in cities, where they are often unregistered and therefore ineligible for services. These refugees tend to live in squalor and are vulnerable to exploitation. Nearly 80% of the refugees are women and children. These figures don’t include the 12.2 million within Syria who are either internally displaced or in urgent need of help.

About 200,000 people have been killed in Syria, many after torture. A photographer, who documented these horrors for the regime but defected, smuggled his photos out of Syria; they were passed on to me by a Syrian non-governmental organization. These emaciated, disfigured corpses could be skeletal Jewish inmates photographed during the liberation of Dachau, but they aren’t. They are Syrian Muslims and Christians—and this is happening now. As a Jew, I felt compelled to respond, and out of that response came an unexpected union. In partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and with the convening of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, I initiated the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. MFA includes Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Sikhs, as well as other faith-based and secular groups. In addition to raising awareness of the crisis, MFA raises funds to support organizations that are working on the ground to provide services to refugees. Many nongovernmental organizations struggle to address this traumatized population’s immense needs. Among those groups are Israeli organizations that are operating throughout the region. Some of them—the Israeli Trauma Coalition, Saving a Child’s Heart and IsraAid, for instance—allow themselves to be identified. Others prefer to operate below the radar because, as Israelis, they are in hostile areas. Despite this animus, the Israeli government has opened its northern border in the Golan to treat wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals. The story of Amin and Anat, as I’ll call them to protect their work, shows how traditional religious enmities are being overcome. Amin, a Syrian businessman, told me that he had been providing medical assistance in Syria when he was forced to flee. The Assad regime has made it a policy to attack medical workers and medical facilities to limit the treatment of opposition fighters. Syrian doctors have been arrested, tortured and killed as traitors. More than 15,000 physicians have fled Syria, according to the Syrian-American Medical Society. Only a few remain in major cities. But Amin has managed to help his fellow Syrians from outside. One day, as he was smuggling in aid to Syria, he met Anat, the founder of an Israeli NGO. When he learned that she was Israeli, Amin told me, he was suspicious. After all, he had been taught that Israel is the enemy, yet here was an Israeli offering help. Amin and Anat have now worked together for more than two years. Anat’s Israeli organization and a prominent Syrian NGO have worked together to deliver food, help Syrian children get lifesaving operations in Israel, provide rescue equipment for Syrians affected by bombings and more. Israelis and Syrians have been able to rise above politics to work together to alleviate suffering. This humanitarian work is launching a people-to-people process in which Syrians and Israelis will come together to discuss future free-trade zones and other partnerships. As Amin to told me: “The Syrian uprising against the Assad rule gave a rare opportunity among the Syrian society to start to question the rationale behind this hate for Israel. With Israelis coming to the aid of Syrians in their struggle to survive, more Syrians have come to the conclusion that Israel is not the enemy but a potential partner in the new Syria.” Several prominent Syrian families are involved in the planning, which offers even more promise. Their country is a tribal one, and these families are likely to remain influential, whomever is in power after the war ends. The glimmer of hope in the darkness is that Israelis and Syrians, Jews and Muslims and others are changing their perceptions of one another and finding constructive ways to work together. It is small, targeted initiatives like this one that can lay the groundwork for broader change in the Middle East. Ms. Bennett is the founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a project of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in cooperation with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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