As the son of a diplomat, Fairfax resident Ridwan Adhami said he has always been attracted to world news and issues. It is one of the appeals of his current job at Islamic Relief USA, a humanitarian aid nonprofit in Alexandria. In the year he has been employed as creative director at Islamic Relief USA, Adhami has traveled to Egypt, Kenya, Somalia and the Palestinian settlement in the West Bank with the goal of documenting the nonprofit’s aid efforts and need in those areas. However, the one place both aid organizations and Adhami a U.S.-born Syrian American want to go next is the one place they cannot enter, the Syrian Arab Republic.
“I have been around the world and documented some horrible situations and some amazing human triumph and I can not wait to help my own people, and show their beauty and need for help in an honest way,” said Adhami, 31, creative director at Islamic Relief USA in Alexandria. “Islamic Relief is doing work not in Syria—but near Syria … We can’t get into Syria.”
Earlier this month, U.N. humanitarian affairs leaders told reporters that the Syrian government refused to allow aid agencies to deliver supplies and support. The U.N. estimates that some 50,000 to 60,000 Syrian residents have been displaced because of the violence in the country, which is said to have begun with public demonstrations on Jan. 26, 2011, as part of the larger Arab Spring revolution movement in the Arab World.
As a result of the government’s refusal to allow incoming aid, humanitarian workers are supplying Syrian refugees in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
Much of Adhami’s extended family and that of his wife, who is also a U.S.-born Syrian-American, live in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
“You see on the news in in Afghanistan or Iraq—these places in ruins and you never think you’d see places where you’ve been like that,” he said. “I support the revolution, but it’s hard when you have a lot of family over there.”
Getting good information on their family’s wellbeing is also difficult.
“It’s difficult because there’s a lot of uncertainty. That’s the frustration here because we don’t know how to help…. Foreign journalists have been let in but some have died,” Adhami said. “When it first started, our family over there was saying, ‘Al Jazeera [news network] is lying. They are all lying. Nothing is going on here.’ It can’t all be fake.”
Adhami said his Syrian-based family also dissuaded him from visiting.
“We do have communication with them, but it’s not authentic because they are worried about what they say,” he said. “Like, they’ll say it’s not a good time to come because you have asthma and it wouldn’t be good for your asthma… They aren’t saying don’t come because there has been guns fired.”
Lack of access and information on Syrian residents’ needs has been a frustration of aid workers as well.
“Every humanitarian relief effort we launch is different,” said Asma Yousef, a spokeswoman for Islamic Relief USA, which is an independent affiliate of Islamic Relief WorldWide. “The complication we have now is that we cannot operate in Syria and get the aid to areas where there is conflict. For that reason, we have looked for ways to help Syrians outside of the country.”
Islamic Relief’s main concern about Syria, she said, is the availability of humanitarian resources and aid should the conflict drag on.
“The transitional shelters to which many of these refugees have fled are temporary in nature, and were not intended to support this large number of refugees and displaced persons for prolonged periods of time,” Yousef said. “We are also concerned that the continued presence of refugees in host countries may constitute a strain on the local communities hosting refugees, which may cause hostilities.”
Islamic Relief USA estimates that for every dollar raised, 93.8 cents goes to aid.
In 2011, Islamic Relief USA programs aided more than 3.87 million people in 34 countries. The nonprofit began its Syrian aid campaign in January.
“The human toll of the Syrian uprising is undoubtedly grave,” CEO of Islamic Relief USA Abed Ayoub said in a statement on the Syrian aid effort. “Families who are fleeing the violence are bringing almost nothing with them as they make the long trip across the border in search of safety, food and shelter … This initiative is a lifeline to those we are able to reach.”
The U.N. estimates there are as many as 120,000 Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries. Islamic Relief USA is providing weekly food rations, diapers, hygiene products, gas and kerosene for heat and rent payments to aid refugees.
Adhami said one of the major differences he sees between Syria’s current uprising and the rise lead by Egyptians has been the role of the military.
“In Egypt, the military said they would not fire on the people. In Syria, all the people in the military are part of the regime,” said Adhami, who visited Cairo in July as part of a trip to document Islamic Relief USA’s aid efforts there.
He added that he does not see the efforts against the current regime dying down.
“It’s gotten to the point in Syria where it’s gone too far [to turn back],” Adhami said. “If it all just stops now, there’s been like 10,000 people killed. What’s it all been for?
“… This has gone on for a year. The Egyptian [protests and regime change] lasted for 17 days. The Tunisian one for two weeks… I want to be able to do what I do, for the place I love the most. It is very difficult not to be able to do so.”
For more information about Islamic Relief USA, visit www.irusa.org.