One of the worst refugee crises since World War II has prompted a remarkable outpouring of support across Seattle and beyond. All sorts of people have stepped up, helping resettle Syrian families here and also traveling to Europe.
Su Olsen did not know where she was going, though she was leaving in a week. It would be somewhere in Greece, she knew that much. The 70-year-old jewelry maker from Bainbridge Island had been so moved upon reading about the refugees flooding there from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East that she decided she had to help, in person.
“I couldn’t not go,” she explained, standing by a car loaded with warm clothes she had just driven into a Fremont garage-turned-depot. From here, supplies travel to the refugees, often as extra luggage carried by volunteers such as Olsen who have signed up with a bootstrap aid organization called Salaam Cultural Museum, in offices above the garage.
The organization had been sending many of its volunteers to Lesbos island to greet packed boats of refugees coming in from Turkey. But a just-negotiated European Union deal meant Greece would be sending the boats back, and now Salaam had to decide whether to send volunteers to Lesbos anyway, in the event some refugees made it through, or to concentrate on a sprawling refugee camp near the Macedonian border.
Hence Olsen’s uncertainty about her destination, which matched her haziness about what she would be doing when she got there. “I can make food or make beds,” she said. It didn’t really matter. She would do whatever was needed.
The drive to do something, anything, to alleviate one of the worst refugee crises since World War II can be felt across Seattle and beyond. All sorts of people have stepped forward — some with strong ties to the region, like Salaam’s Jordanian-born founder Rita Zawaideh, and some with none at all, such as Olsen, who hails from Swedish stock. Some came to this country as refugees themselves from different conflicts, finding deep resonance in the Syrian experience, and some have lived here all their lives.
A few have put their lives on hold. Sam Hamoui, of Lake Stevens, quit a sales-consultant job at a company he had been with for 10 years to raise money and supplies for a refugee school in Turkey. “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” said the Damascus-born 38-year-old, talking on the way to the airport and explaining that he knew he could have been among the refugees had his parents not emigrated decades ago.
Others pitch in when they can by collecting donations or signing up to assist refugees once they arrive in the U.S.
“There’s been a remarkable outpouring of support,” said Nicky Smith, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Seattle, one of five agencies that work to resettle refugees locally.
In fact, at this point, there are more people calling to help than there are Syrian refugees in the area, so Smith and her counterparts have been trying to redirect the goodwill toward refugees from other regions.
Even so, said Margaret Hinson, refugee-services director at Jewish Family Service of Seattle, “All the agencies have some type of waitlist for the volunteer role.”
Religion “doesn’t matter”
The desire to help transcends the usual sectarian tensions. Despite the conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, Jewish Family Service has largely been resettling Muslim refugees over the last decade, and is now preparing for the newest wave.
“To us, it doesn’t matter,” said Rabbi Will Berkovitz, the organization’s CEO, of the refugees’ religion. “Being a refugee people,” he said, Jews “know what it means to be an outsider, to have the door shut and yet nowhere to run.”
The surge of interest belies the reticent response that often comes across from official U.S. pronouncements and political debates. The federal government has committed to taking in far fewer refugees than Canada or European countries have. And dozens of U.S. governors — not to mention Donald Trump, with his call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration — have argued that the United States should take in none at all while security remains a concern.
In contrast, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee welcomed Syrian refugees to resettle in this state. They have been coming, but slowly, due to time-consuming security screenings and other processing. In the last year and a half, roughly 50 Syrian refugees have arrived, according to Sarah Peterson, head of the state Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance.
As the Syrian crisis pushes the U.S. to bump up the number of refugees it admits, by 10,000 this year, Washington is poised to resettle some 300 more refugees by year’s end than it did last year, to 3,200.
“You are not forgotten”
Zawaideh isn’t willing to wait. Day after day, the 65-year-old founder and president of Salaam sits at her desk, her Yorkie Omar Sharif at her side, furiously making arrangements for the teams of 15 to 20 people she has been sending to Greece on a weekly basis since September. The staff of the travel company she also runs, and which serves as a home for Salaam, work alongside her.
“I’ve been on the phone since early this morning to see if I can get firewood,” Zawaideh said. The calls were to contacts in Greece, and the firewood was for the refugees camped out in the border town of Idomeni, so desperate to keep warm amid the freezing rain that they have been burning plastic and old clothes.
Three staffers were also working the phones, trying to switch flights and book hotels as they phased out their Lesbos operation and concentrated on Idomeni. Zawaideh had just decided to fly to Greece herself to assess the situation.
Around them was a jumble of boxes filled with hand-knit hats and scarves, baby supplies and other things people had mailed or dropped off. “Not a day goes by that there’s not something sitting on my porch,” she said.
Zawaideh’s connection to the refugees is personal. Raised in Seattle, she married a Syrian architect and moved to his homeland in the early ’70s. She spent a dozen years there.
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She ultimately separated from her husband and came back to Seattle but maintained close ties with friends and family in the Middle East. She traveled to the region often after founding Caravan-Serai Tours & Consulting, which she would later joke, during the George W. Bush presidency, specialized in tours to “Axis of Evil countries.”
She aimed to dispel Arab stereotypes and promote cultural understanding — goals that also served as inspiration for a museum she hoped to start. But the artifacts she collected have stayed in her home, and the Salaam Cultural Museum gradually morphed into a humanitarian organization.
Zawaideh said it started during the first Gulf War, in 1991, when she used tour buses to send donated medicine and other supplies into Iraq. She continued such work in the Middle East as other conflicts arose.
Nothing hit home, though, the way the Syrian crisis has. She started recruiting doctors and other volunteers from around the country, and traveled herself to Jordan and now Greece.
Dr. Neil McFarland is a University of Washington urgent-care physician who traveled on a Salaam mission to Lesbos in November, paying his own way like all of Zawaideh’s volunteers. Major aid organizations “did not get involved for several months in Lesbos,” he noted. “Rita was there within a week.”
“We had an emergency,” Zawaideh said. “Three to five thousand people were coming in every day by boat.”
A few days after Zawaideh got back from Greece in early April, her sense of urgency seemed stronger than ever, although the trip had taken a toll. Coughing, she said she had been hit by a respiratory infection from breathing in burning plastic at Idomeni. Normally ebullient, she broke down as she talked about babies born in rudimentary tents, where they couldn’t even be washed in a sink.
Sick or not, she was back at her desk, making calls about condos she wanted to rent there that could house pregnant women and new mothers.
Olsen, still in Idomeni, had found purpose there, too. She was working out of Salaam’s mobile health vans, handing out medicine.
Soon, everything would change again. In late April, the Greek government told refugees it would close the Idomeni camp imminently, and suggested to Zawaideh that she move her operation to a new camp being built nearby.
A welcome after war
In a Tukwila apartment, members of the Alsalkini family settled on a plush, red couch.
“Today I was telling my dad in the car that I still can’t process the whole thing,” Yazan, 20, the oldest child, said through an interpreter. He was referring to the journey that took the family of six from their home in Homs, a city in western Syria, where his father, Mohamad Raed, ran a small grocery store, to Jordan, where they lived for almost four years, and then to Washington state. They arrived in September.
In the space of four years, they had seen their town fall under siege to government troops patrolling for rebels, some of whom beat up Mohamad Raed, breaking three of his ribs. They had struggled in Jordan amid growing anti-refugee sentiment, which led Yazan to drop out of school. And they had ultimately landed in a place where they did not know the language yet had to scramble to start paying rent after a few months.
Despite the dizzying changes, the Alsalkinis seemed relaxed in their new home. “Beautiful,” mom Nahed said when asked how she liked it here.
They did not settle in alone. That red couch — it came, along with a coffee table, a dining-room set and a TV, from Aléna Avdic, who came to the U.S. at 13 as a Bosnian refugee during the genocidal interethnic war in the 1990s. Now a 34-year-old dental assistant, she belongs to an informal network that steps in to fill the gaps left by resettlement agencies, which receive limited funding. She got the furniture from a friend who was moving.
Avdic escaped a war that claimed several close family members. Her uncles were taken to concentration camps and shot into their graves.
“When you’re around people who’ve been through what you’ve been through, it kind of helps,” Avdic said. Through the Syrians, she said, “I find myself healing a bit.”
Methal Dabaj, who volunteered to interpret on this evening, is Syrian herself. With a Jordanian dad, she was able to flee her home country early in the civil war and live a normal life in Jordan. She finished her education and landed a job as a software engineer at Microsoft.
Many of her Syrian friends have not been so lucky. “For me it’s a constant worry,” she said.
To help those she can, the Kirkland resident started a Facebook page, Welcome Home Refugees Kirkland. “We are planing a big delivery to needy families this coming Sunday,” read a recent message asking for volunteers to load and unload U-Haul trucks.
She and Mohamed Elnouby, another Microsoft software engineer, met the Alsalkinis at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, in Redmond, which held a potluck for Syrian refugees last winter. Since then, they have been driving the family to the mosque and other outings, where they often interpret. Elnouby took the kids roller skating for Noura’s 14th birthday.
Some volunteers see their effort as a means toward personal growth. Amal Winter, a retired West Seattle psychologist who went to Lesbos with Salaam in November, talks about seeing an element of “trauma tourism” there.
Elnouby displays a different attitude. “I didn’t do much,” he protested when the Alsalkinis talk about how helpful he’s been. The 26-year-old said he immediately hit it off with Nabil, an enthusiastic 15-year-old quickly on his way to English proficiency.
“For me, they are my friends,” Elnouby said, “so it’s not about helping.”