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Syrian-Americans find ways to help from afar

Palestinian youths flash V-signs while they hold Syrian flags during a pro-Syrian demonstration November 18, 2005 in Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

How best to deal with the extremely messy situation in Syria?

That’s the question the U.S. government and the international community are wrestling with right now. But it’s one that Syrian expats have wrestled with in a different, more intimate way for more than two years.

Metro Detroit has one of the nation’s largest and oldest Syrian communities. How have they dealt with the crisis? How are they using the community’s social and economic resources to help? 

A long history, but strong ties

Syrians started migrating to Detroit more than 100 years ago.

But today, many are newer immigrants who still have close ties to Syria.

Recently, about one hundred Syrian-Americans gathered at a tidy park in suburban Detroit. They chanted and held banners depicting scenes of atrocities in Syria, including victims of a chemical weapons attack attributed to President Bashar Al-Assad.  

Ibrahim Alkeilani stood on the fringes of the protest, holding the flag of the Syrian revolution. He said it’s hard to even get ahold of relatives in Syria.  And when you do, conversations take place in a kind of code.

“I call it secret Syrian ways of communication,” said Alkeilani. “We use funny words, and different expressions, basically to evade Syrian monitoring of the telephone lines.”

Even before the uprising against Assad’s government more than two years ago, there were nearly as many Syrians living outside Syria as there were inside.

And right now, those inside Syria rely on family members abroad more than ever.

Wael Hakmeh, a Syrian-American born and raised in the U.S., said it’s not easy to send money to his in-laws there. At this point, ex-pats basically have to find someone to smuggle money directly into the country. And even then, there are dangers to spending U.S. dollars in Syria.

“The Assad regime now is jailing people who use currency other than the Syrian pound,” Hakmeh said, “and they don’t want the continued devaluation of the pound.”

Finding ways to help from afar

Hakmeh is an emergency room physician. There are lots of doctors in Michigan’s Syrian community. Some have even gone back to Syria to provide medical aid.

There are other ways for Syrian-Americans to help out from afar—like frequent fundraisers for humanitarian assistance.

“Consistently, these fundraisers have all raised over a million dollars,” said Lena Masri, a Syrian-American attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Michigan.

One thing southeast Michigan’s Syrian community doesn’t lack is money. And they’ve raised millions upon millions of dollars in relief funds over the last two years, with the vast majority going to help the refugees in the camps that have sprung up around Syria’s borders.

Masri said what they do lack is manpower -- especially to help refugees who have ended up in the U.S. She’s taken on dozens of refugee cases, for those claiming political asylum and also what’s known as “temporary protected status.”

Masri said the community isn’t seeing a truly overwhelming number of Syrian refugees -- yet. But there are some, and she has personally taken on dozens of cases.

Masri said an informal network of support has popped up to support refugees here. She’s seen applications showing that many receive money, housing and other support from Syrian-Americans.

“They’ve consistently been able to list others who have provided financial support from shelter to utilities to, you know every day expenses,” Masri said. “And these are people who don’t necessarily know each other.”

“A generation of refugees receiving another generation of refugees”

That kind of generosity -- even from strangers -- is something Dr. Adnan Hamad has seen again and again. He works for Arab-American Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn.

Over the course of decades, Hamad has seen waves of refugees from the Middle East -- Lebanese, Iraqis, and now increasingly Syrians -- arrive in metro Detroit. He said that absorbing these refugees is almost second nature to Detroit’s large Arab-American community.

“This community is about a generation of immigrants receiving a second generation of immigrants,” Hamad said. “A generation of refugees receiving another influx of refugees.”

These networks of support are impressive, but not all is rosy. The civil conflict in Syria has split Detroit’s Syrian community. There are rebel supporters like the protesters above, but there’s also a pro-Assad faction. The conflict has ended friendships and split families.

But Hamad is confident the larger Arab-American community will pull together to support displaced Syrians.

 “I think the community is going to be more helpful to the Syrian refugees than any other influx of refugees that we have received in the past,” he said.

And Hamad, once a Palestinian refugee himself, has seen a number of families arrive in Michigan traumatized, penniless and friendless. And he says within a few years, many have re-built their lives to the point where they’re the ones contributing the most to the next wave of refugees.

About the author

Sarah Cwiek is a reporter who joined Michigan Radio in October 2009.

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