Two humanitarian activists face the exhausting challenges of five years of civil war in Syria

By Coco McCabe
This section of the Jabal Badero neighborhood in Aleppo lies in ruins following an attack in 2013. Six children reportedly were among those killed. Photo by EPA/Bruno Gallardo

Living in exile, Hazem Rihawi and Fadi Hallisso work with local organizations striving to bring medical care and wellbeing to displaced Syrians.

 It has been years since humanitarian activists Hazem Rihawi and Fadi Hallisso—both in their 30s—last saw their homes in Syria, where a half decade of civil war has left countless neighborhoods unrecognizable. Yet, exile has only deepened the attachment each feels for his country and the millions of everyday people struggling inside Syria—and out—to feed and shelter their families, to find work, to hold onto hope that someday they may be lucky enough to find security again, somewhere.

The fighting has taken a mind-numbing in toll: Half of the nation’s 22 million people have fled from their homes with more than 4.5 million of them crossing the borders into lives as refugees. There they try to establish a life and meet their basic needs. But those countries—Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and others—are feeling the strain, too, as their services and infrastructure become overstretched.

For many Syrians who have stayed behind, the vice is ever-tightening: The UN estimates close to 500,000 people are struggling to survive in besieged cities and towns where food, water, and medical care have been in critically short supply. Though convoys of aid are now reaching some of the blocked-off communities, a new round of peace talks faltered in early February, and fighting around Aleppo, one of Syria’s largest cities, escalated, driving out thousands more people. The announcement that a ceasefire went into effect in late February was met with cautious optimism.

It is into this sea of uncertainty and suffering that Rihawi and Hallisso wade each day: Both have put their former dreams and lives on hold—possibly forever—and committed themselves to working for local organizations deeply involved in helping Syrians survive the horror of the present. Local aid groups often have better access to people in conflict zones than international organizations do, making the work of those local responders essential. They know their communities best, and frequently the most valuable help the international humanitarian community can provide is to support responses led by local people themselves.

Hazem Rihawi, a Syrian national who now lives in Turkey, is the advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Bread and treason

“How can you not help?” asks Rihawi, now stationed in Gaziantep, Turkey, where he works as the advocacy manager for the Syrian American Medical Society, or SAMS, which is providing medical care to more than one million people inside Syria. 

Rihawi had been living a comfortable life as a manager at a pharmaceutical factory not far from his family’s home in Aleppo when the rumblings of a people’s rebellion first started. He said many were sure that the pro-Democracy uprisings—the so called “Arab Spring” —that started in Tunisia in 2010 would bypass Syria. People in Aleppo, particularly the older generations, were afraid of the consequences, Rihawi said: Hundreds had reportedly been killed following an uprising in the city in 1980.

But when it became clear that these new calls for freedom and reform were not going to fade, and when the protests were met with a government crackdown, Rihawi knew he couldn’t turn his back on what was happening. He made the choice to begin quietly providing humanitarian support to Syrians on both sides of the divide—a choice that came with grave risks to his own wellbeing.

“Even delivering bread would be considered treason,” said Rihawi, whose expertise was connecting people in need with basic goods for their survival.

By 2013, it had become increasingly clear to Rihawi that he could do more good for his fellow Syrians by working outside of the country than in it. In August, he packed a few belongings—only what he could carry—and made his way to Turkey, where he quickly landed a job with SAMS.

A tent near the town of Baalbek in Lebanon is now home for these brothers whose family fled from war-torn Syria. Photo by Sam Tarling/Oxfam

A Jesuit’s path

For Hallisso, watching the steady disintegration of his country was more than he could bear. A former civil engineer from Aleppo, he had decided to answer a calling to become a Jesuit priest—a choice that led him first to Egypt where a Jesuit novitiate was located, and then to Lebanon in 2010 to study philosophy.

“When I joined the Jesuits, I wanted to live my faith in a very practical way,” says Hallisso. But as events in Syria began to spiral out of control, as the death toll mounted –more than 250,000 people have now died—and the suffering intensified, Hallisso knew he had to do something.

“I was supposed to go to France for four years to study theology. It didn’t feel right to me, somehow, to leave the region in the middle of all this chaos,” he says. “I felt it was now my contribution was needed. . . . There was a decision to make: Either I continue as a priest and be away, or stay in the region and help somehow.”

Hallisso decided to stay.

His life’s work has now become Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an organization he cofounded with friends to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Its name, in English, means a smile and an olive—a nod to an ancient Arabic saying about how people can live on a bit of bread and an olive, a metaphor for an austere life. What the founders wanted to convey, says Hallisso, is that along with basic material aid, they recognized the need people have for spiritual and emotional support as  well.

One of the goals of the organization is to help people shed the mantel foisted on so many refugees—that of conflict victim dependent on assistance—and become empowered  individuals able to thrive no matter how turbulent the times are.  At  Basmeh & Zeitooneh’s community centers, refugees receive not only relief services, but they get help with vocational training, employment opportunities, and peace education for their children. Hallisso now serves as the organization’s chief executive officer.

“A lot of the concepts we talk about are foreign to our culture—like peace and democracy,” says Hallisso, pointing to the organization’s civic engagement programs. “We don’t have any Democratic practice. . . . It is something we need to be trained on. We need to practice.”

Daily struggles

As Rihawi and Hallisso focus on the needs of Syrians, the struggles many of them face seem to become more acute by the day. One of the key concerns SAMS has is the destruction of Syria’s medical infrastructure and the deliberate targeting of hospitals—a tactic that not only kills and wounds patients and doctors, but terrorizes civilians and discourages them from seeking the medical care they need.

The bombings just won’t stop: On Feb. 15, the New York Times reported that four hospitals were attacked in a single day, leaving 50 people dead, including children. One of the hospitals was for pediatric and maternity patients.

“We want all attacks to stop,” says Rihawi. “Bombing should stop everywhere.”

And until it does, the stream of Syrians seeking safety outside their country isn’t likely to stop either—a reality that is triggering a backlash Hallisso and other Syrians in exile confront daily.

“The rejection is not only coming from people, but also it is reflected in the new laws and regulations that are being imposed on Syrians on a daily basis,” says Hallisso. “Like just this month, Turkey imposed new visas on Syrians so our ability to move, even as humanitarian workers, has become very limited. We feel like we are trapped now. Even if you wanted to have a safe haven, you cannot.”

For Hallisso, the challenges are taking a toll.

“Lately, I’ve been feeling depressed, betrayed, disappointed,” he says. “It seems that all the doors are being closed in our face. … All we wanted in 2011 was dignity and freedom—and we ended up with a third world war by proxy.”

Ibrahim and Aisha fled from the outskirts of Aleppo--one of Syria's largest cities--and now live in an informal refugee settlement in northern Lebanon. Photo by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

‘Those beautiful people’

Still, as hard as their work is, Rihawi and Hallisso won’t give up. They can’t. Too many people are depending on the support and guidance their local organizations provide—aid inspired by the deep understanding groups like theirs have of Syria’s culture and context, an understanding that makes local groups best suited for carrying out much of the work.

“National NGOs are the voice of the people,” says Rihawi. “This is why we’re fighting for every civilian inside Syria.”

Hallisso puts it this way: “When you see those beautiful people who are staying there inside Syria or the surrounding countries, struggling to build their life, to get back on their feet, to feed their children . . . you feel like . . . you have to keep struggling.”

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