South Bend area interfaith communities respond to Syria
From the South Bend Tribune
Georgette Bennett, founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, speaks with Ahmed Amin, whose real name and identity is shielded for his family's safety in Syria. SBT Photo/JOSEPH DITS
SOUTH BEND — Bloodshed mounted as Syria's government cracked down on protests. Amin Ahmed, the general manager of a hospital, and some well-off comrades pooled together their finances and secretly provided medical care to the ill and wounded in their native Syria. Then, a year and a half later, the government detected them, which put Ahmed's life at risk.
He grabbed a small bag of possessions and fled in 2012, joining what has become a flood of more than 4 million refugees from Syria.
Now living in the Detroit area, Ahmed came to speak Wednesday and Thursday at Andrews University, the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley and the University of Notre Dame about how his group is still giving medical care to Syrians.
Seven local congregations joined together this week, chipping in $250 each from their budgets, to aid the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. The New York-based alliance is both sending aid to help Syrian refugees, including Ahmed's group, and pushing U.S. lawmakers to boost the resettlement of the refugees.
Alliance founder Georgette Bennett, who also spoke, hopes that visits like these stir congregations to become members of the alliance, which means they must commit to advocacy and fund-raising for its causes. The local donors were St. Pius X Catholic Church, St. Matthew Cathedral, First Presbyterian Church in South Bend, Temple Beth-El, Sinai Synagogue, the Hebrew Orthodox Congregation and the United Religious Community and the Jewish Federation.
Amin Ahmed is a pseudonym he's using to protect his parents and a brother in Syria. Before leaving the country himself, he moved his wife and children in 2011 to the United States, where he'd already held legal status, for their own safety.
He said that, among the litany of friends and relatives who've died in the civil war, one relative was shot by a sniper as he took a wounded person to the hospital, then died of his own wounds.
"We just don't keep count anymore," he said. "We try to keep our emotions in check. If you don't, you will go crazy."
At that, Bennett noted the lack of counseling services to help Syrians with a widespread trauma.
For example, she said there's a spike in domestic violence that's been triggered by the stresses that the crisis has placed on households. Women have been raped as a "weapon of war." To protect their daughters from this rape, parents are marrying their daughters off at age 12 or 13 — far earlier than the cultural norms here, Ahmed says — only to see those daughters become impregnated prematurely and die in childbirth.
"We find it very offensive and very unnatural," Ahmed said.
When he fled in 2012, he came to Turkey, then to Europe since it was close enough to continue the medical work. And when he met an Israeli group that offered help, it confused him. He thought Israelis were happy that Syrians were being killed, mirroring the same hatred he'd grown up with under one president, one political party, one TV station and one way of thinking: "We hated Turkey, we hated Israel. We were the right ones. Everyone else was wrong."
His mindset flipped as the Syrian group and Israelis worked together, becoming "like family."
"This gave me hope that the Middle East is not all doom and gloom, and everyone's not trying to kill each other," says Ahmed, who often travels back to Syria and the Balkans to run the operations.
Ahmed's group runs hospitals along the borders and in parts of Syria that aren't controlled by the government. They had about a dozen facilities at one point, but now there are fewer as the hospitals endure bombings and as fewer doctors are willing to put up with such risks, he says. The group is now setting up a hospital in a cave, he says, to guard against the bombing.
Just after Ahmed spoke to an audience from different faiths at the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley, an Israeli-born man recalled growing up with a similar mindset: "If you give a Syrian a chance, he'll come after you." And an Iraqi refugee recalled hatred in Arab countries for Jews. Both sounded hope that interfaith relief efforts like this could, in the Iraqi's words, "break the chain" of hate.
Bennett, who is the daughter of Jewish holocaust survivors who fled Hungary in 1948, lamented Syrian resettlement efforts that are lagging far behind, partly because of a large funding gap at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR has requested resettlement worldwide for about 130,000 of the refugees, but few have even moved to their host countries, she said.
President Obama has said that the U.S. would take up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. Critics argue that that would open up more chances for terrorists to enter the U.S. Only 249 Syrian refugees were resettled in the U.S. last year alone and a total of about 1,900 so far, Bennett said.
"Nobody suggests we compromise our security criteria," she said. "Absolutely not."