At gathering in Villanova, Syrians try to help their homeland

Jaber Alanzi, a resident at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, believes raising awareness is as critical as raising money for the cause.
Jaber Alanzi, a resident at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, believes raising awareness is as critical as raising money for the cause. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 05, 2013

As brutal images of children killed in Syria's civil war flashed on a screen inside a gym at the Foundation for Islamic Education in Villanova on Saturday, a woman in a brilliant blue head scarf sat in the audience of 100 men and women and quietly sobbed.

Born in Damascus 39 years ago, she lives in Valley Forge now, but still has family in the war-torn country. For reasons of their security, she asked to be identified only by her first name, Rabab.

"I am a mother," Rabab said, explaining her tears. "When you see children being killed, and their mothers crying, how can the whole world watch and not do anything?"

An estimated 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, when troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began clashing with demonstrators seeking civil rights and later with armed rebels trying to topple his regime. Because of the growing violence, 1.6 million Syrians are living as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq; millions more Syrians are internally displaced and desperate for humanitarian aid.

Sponsored by the two-month-old Philadelphia-area chapter of the nonprofit Syrian American Council, Saturday's gathering was designed to raise consciousness about the crisis and funds for Syrian widows and orphans.

One picture in the presentation showed a boy of about 6 holding a poster written in Arabic. "My father didn't go for a pilgrimage [to Mecca]," it read. "He was killed."

For Jaber Alanzi, 30, a medical resident in urology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, raising public awareness is as critical as raising money for the cause.

His parents live in Homs, a Syrian city that has been on the receiving end of Assad's military crackdown. As Alanzi spoke privately about his concern for them, an attendee at the fund-raiser slipped him a $100 check.

An Allentown internist with family in Syria asked to be identified only as "Dr. B." Along with four other doctors, he recently went to Syria carrying suitcases filled with basic supplies, such as sutures, provided by the nonprofit Syrian American Medical Society. They delivered the material to Aleppo, where 10 field hospitals have been targeted by Assad's troops, Dr. B said.

What do the people of Syria need most?

"What do they not need?" said Eyad Takiedine, 55, who was born in Damascus and lives now in Ivyland.

"The Jordanian and Lebanese governments can only do so much" to help the refugees, he said, which is why contributions to the council, funneled through the Syrian Sunrise Foundation, are so important.

Takiedine, who owns several Dunkin' Donuts restaurants in Bucks and Chester Counties, came to the United States when he was 18.

"I have experienced firsthand the democracy and generosity of the American people," he said, "and I wish the good life that I have experienced in this country on my people back home. But nothing in a revolution happens easily. Even in the U.S., a lot of people died for the freedoms that we enjoy now."

Several of the speakers noted that the United Nations has called Syria the most serious humanitarian crisis since the Rwandan genocide.

After an iftar meal to break the fasting of Ramadan, hundreds more arrived, and a fund-raising appeal was to begin in earnest.

Organizers said they hoped to raise tens of thousands of dollars.


Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541, mmatza@ phillynews.com, of follow on Twitter @MichaelMatza1.

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