© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Some Syrian-Americans Take Humanitarian Aid Into Their Own Hands


The U.N. estimates four million people inside Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance. Add to that up to a million more Syrian refugees who fled to neighboring countries, also in need of help. The U.S. government has pledged tens of millions of dollars in aid, but that hasn't stopped some Syrian-Americans from taking matters into their own hands.

Ben Bergman, of member station KPCC, introduces us to some sending aid from Southern California.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: When Omar Chamma recently traveled to the Syrian-Turkish border, he packed so many bags of food and medical supplies that he incurred $1,600 in baggage fees on American Airlines. He also brought a quarter of a million dollars in donated money to buy more supplies when he arrived. It was his seventh trip in the past year.

OMAR CHAMMA: Every time I fly out of Istanbul, I will say, you know, this is my last time - I'm not going to go back again. Then I sit down and think about what I've seen. I've seen the desperation in their eyes down there. And every time I come back there, there is nobody there showing up to help them.

BERGMAN: Chamma isn't a doctor or an aid worker. He's in real estate investment and apparently is apparently quite skillful at raising money.

He was born and raised in Damascus before moving to the U.S. to study engineering at Louisiana State University in the '80s. He estimates he's collected more than a million and a half dollars - mostly from Syrian friends in Southern California - to help refugees. The money has gone to buy blankets, sleeping bags, kids' shoes, medicine, and hundreds of boxes of sutures. That's because Chamma saw refugees rolling up plastic bags to try to bind their wounds.

CHAMMA: They have no bandages. They have no medication. They have no antibiotics. I went to a house one day and there were 55 people living in one two-bedroom home and there's no doctors between them. And most of the people who come through the border, they're civilian - injured civilian, from bombing or shooting or burn victims.

MAVIS BENTON CHAMMA: Not every wife would support their husband going into a war zone.

BERGMAN: Mavis Benton Chamma serves us coffee and cake in her Orange County home, where an entire room is devoted to storing relief supplies. Her husband says he will keep going to the border as long as Syrians need help.

BENTON CHAMMA: Every time he goes I just leave it to God. If it's something is going to happen, at least I know he's doing what he believes in.

BERGMAN: As hard as it for her and their three children to see their father leave every few weeks, she knows why he has to go.

BENTON CHAMMA: I'm from Louisiana. If somebody was invading Louisiana, I'm going to go there.

BERGMAN: That sense of solidarity has led dozens of other Syrian-Americans to the border. One of them is Sama Wareh, a 29-year-old artist who also lives in Orange County, California. Her parents are from Damascus. And before the war, she visited her cousins in the capital city many times. In November, Wareh backpacked by herself to the same border town Chamma goes to, Reyhanli.

She sold her motorcycle and paintings to pay for the trip, and raised thousands of dollars from friends.

SAMA WAREH: My thinking was that if there are thousands of refugees in Turkey right now, and more are crossing the border every day, there's got to be a lot that are not in the refugee camps, that nobody knows about. So my whole thing was I'm going to go look for those people.

BERGMAN: She found plenty of people who needed help. She took them grocery shopping, bought them blankets and heaters, and paid their rent.

When we met next to the gallery where she works, Wareh was wearing her usual wardrobe - that's a cowboy hat covering her hijab, and cowboy boots. They were the same boots she wore on the border. Only then, she slipped in a knife for security. She didn't have to use it and she never crossed over to the Syrian side, because of a promise she made to her parents.

WAREH: They were like, please, we're already terrified you're going by yourself - just at least don't go into Syria. Everyday people would tell me, I can get you in; I can get you out, it'll be safe. And it was hard to tell them no, I promised my parents I wouldn't do it.

BERGMAN: Wareh is planning to return to the Syrian-Turkish border later this year. This time, she will make no such promise to her parents.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.