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Hazem Rihawi: ‘There’s a better future for this country’

By Coco McCabe
Hazem Rihawi, who works in Gaziantep, Turkey, is the advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

Sticking to his heart’s truths, Hazem Rihawi, a Syrian national, works to bring global attention to the health care needs of families enduring years of conflict in war-torn Syria.

With his seat pushed back as far as it will go, Hazem Rihawi, 33, is folded behind the steering wheel of a small Kia as it races southwest along Turkey’s ancient Silk Road between Gaziantep and Antakya. It’s a drive he has made many times these past two years, since deciding he could do more to help his fellow Syrians in their war-ravaged country by working from the outside in.

Carrying just a suitcase and a backpack to start his new life, Rihawi left his lifelong home in Aleppo on an August morning in 2013 to brave the “death crossing”—a sniper-riddled street between the government- and opposition-held sections of the city. It was the only way out. And it wasn’t the first time Rihawi had dared to make the passage.

A manager at a pharmaceutical factory, Rihawi had been working quietly beneath the government’s radar since 2012 providing humanitarian support to Syrians—on both sides of the divide. His expertise was logistics: connecting people in need with the basics for their survival. Sometimes that meant scraping together money from individuals and organizations outside the country and, with friends, buying supplies, hiring helpers with wheelbarrows, and risking the crossing loaded down with medicines and baby formula.

“It’s an obligation,” says Rihawi of his decision to get involved. “Even if you’re living a comfortable life, it’s about what’s right and wrong. There’s a better future for this country.”

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That drive for social justice is now fueling his day-and-night work as advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society, or SAMS. A medical relief organization led by the Syrian diaspora with offices in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, SAMS is providing life-saving health care to more than a million Syrians trapped in a country where war is steadily destroying the medical infrastructure. Hospitals have become deliberate targets of barrel bombing, says SAMS, terrorizing patients and putting those who care for them on the front lines every day.

“Doctors are the main target,” says Tamer Monla-Hassan, a doctor and the operations and implementation senior manager for SAMS in Turkey. “You kill one doctor and you can kill a thousand wounded demonstrators.”

Local knowledge bolsters coordination and advocacy

Rihawi during a meeting of international and national aid groups working in the health sector in Syria. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

On this raw December morning, Hassan is accompanying Rihawi to Antakya for a biweekly meeting of  national and international aid groups focusing on the complex medical needs of a war-weary civilian population.  Convened under the auspices of the UN’s World Health Organization, the “Health Cluster,” as it is called, realized that to provide aid that could meet local needs, it needed more direct input from national organizations, with their broad local knowledge of the region. So, for the first time this year, it created a national co-coordinator’s position and elected Rihawi from among its members to fill the post.

As his colleagues gather, Rihawi makes the rounds. He greets them with the kind of big, warm smile that clearly belongs to a patient man who knows the importance of listening deeply but who also possesses nerves of steel—a requirement, he says, for anyone doing advocacy on the life-and-death issues of Syria.

 “You should stick to your heart’s truths—and be calm,” says Rihawi, citing as one of his role models India’s Mahatma Gandhi, a leader of that country’s independence famed for his non-violent approach to civil disobedience. “If you have social justice and equality, the whole world will be better.”

More than 30 aid workers jam the meeting room for a two-hour discussion that focuses on immunizations, prevention of waterborne diseases, information gathering, and the most troubling topic of all: what they should be doing about the attacks on Syria’s health facilities. Along with coordinating the aid groups as they develop a humanitarian response plan for 2016 and prepare to fight a possible outbreak of cholera, Rihawi’s top task is making sure that key issues, like air strikes on the hospitals, get the world’s attention. In a pioneering move, the health cluster has put together an advocacy strategy.

“Attacking a hospital is the worst crime you could ever do,” says Rihawi. “Barrel bombs will never give you a strategic advance. . . . It’s for nothing—only terrorizing people. . . . Bombing should stop. Everywhere.”

Gathering accurate data on the air strikes is essential for countering the doubters, bolstering the health cluster’s call for an end to the attacks, and compiling a historical record that could be used in future war crimes trials. And that’s why SAMS, together with the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights, has developed a tool to carefully document the hits on SAMS’ facilities. Equipped with questionnaires and cameras, a team of seven data collectors, spread between Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, and Hamah, is now visiting sites soon after there has been a strike.

What’s needed? Mentorship.

Rihawi makes calls from his desk at the Syrian American Medical Society offices in Turkey. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

As steadily as Rihawi has been working on these advocacy and coordination issues, the pace at which the global humanitarian system moves is often grinding. He longs for a more streamlined process, for a quicker response. For that, says Rihawi, international donors should turn directly to local organizations and invest in strengthening and expanding their capabilities. Oxfam agrees.

“We are best able to reach people inside,” Rihwai says. “The local NGOs are carrying the big load, and the big risks.”

In the two-plus years Rihawi has been with SAMS, the number of staffers in the Turkey office has increased more than fourfold, and they are racing—with the dedication and doggedness of exiled patriots—to keep up with the many needs of the fellow Syrians they serve.

“I don’t feel like we’ve ever left Syria,” says Rihawi. “It’s always in our minds and hearts.”

There’s no question that SAMS has the capability to do the vital work so critical to Syrians’ survival inside their country, says Rihawi. All it needs is a little support from the international aid community.

His advocate’s plea?

“Teach us and mentor us,” Rihawi says, so SAMS can learn to do what international aid groups do. “And maybe do it better.”


Right now less than 2 percent of annual humanitarian assistance is used to support local humanitarian organizations in emergencies. It’s time to put more aid resources and decision-making where they should be: in the hands of local humanitarians in countries affected by disaster, conflict, or other crisis.

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This story is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local humanitarians who are leading disaster prevention and response in their countries – working to ensure communities are protected and empowered in disasters, conflict or other crisis. Though Oxfam may not fund every project or organization featured in the series, Oxfam stands in solidarity with all those around the world working to right the wrong of poverty.  

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