Supporting Syrian Refugees – What You Can Do

When we hear about the troubles afflicting refugees in a far-off place like Syria, it’s easy to feel powerless to help. But Rita Zawaideh, founder of the Salaam Cultural Museum (SCM, 1996), believes we are far from powerless. Zawaideh spoke on Oct. 12 in the PUB’s Quiet Dining Room at her Global Affairs Center event titled “Compassion, Culture and Education.”
She was introduced by SCC’s Amy Kinsel, Dean of Social Sciences, Equity and Social Justice. Zawaideh was born in Jordan and raised in Seattle. She graduated from UW with a BA in history and, as an adult, she has lived in both Syria and Seattle.

At War

The Syrian Civil War started in 2011, and beginning six and a half years ago, Zawaideh has been going back and forth into Jordan for SCM Medical Missions. The idea for the missions began in a hotel in Syria, where Zawaideh met with Syrian doctors. They decided they had to do something for the victims of the war. They made their first trip 45 days later. They helped refugees from Syria get into Jordan. They met people coming in through no-man’s-land, which is disputed ground between the front lines of two armies.

Their volunteers were shot at.

On the island of Lesbos, volunteers would wait on the shore with flags to wave down boats coming in from Turkey. Even though the journey’s distance was “like taking a ferry from Bainbridge,” the travel time could take days, due to smugglers using what Zawaideh called “really crappy boats.” Not to mention, passengers would give huge amounts of money to smugglers and the smugglers would sometimes push them out to sea and abandon them. Boats would often capsize, and many passengers didn’t know how to swim. Zawaideh recalled a woman who gave birth on the journey—the umbilical cord was still attached to her baby when she reached the shore. Other passengers would arrive on shore with gunshot wounds.

Sometimes smugglers waited on the shore to steal children. “You think everybody there is a good person, there to help,” Zawaideh said. She recalled mothers getting to shore, kissing the ground, only to look around and say, “Where’s my baby?” Smugglers took children around 1-year-old to Europe to sell them. After it was discovered this was happening, volunteers were given badges to identify themselves, and the SCM reached out the mayor of the island for protection.

Soon, they had to move again, this time to the Macedonian-Greek border. Refugees started camping out there when Europe closed its borders, thinking they’d open up again. “People didn’t think humanity would do that to them,” Zawaideh said. About this time, with refugees trying to seek a safe place to live, Zawaideh said, “I was tear-gassed I don’t know how many times.” She remembers police using rubber bullets on the refugees and volunteers.

After being camped out for months, the refugees were moved to warehouses that contained 2,000-3,000 people in tents. Their bathrooms were outhouses.
The SCM opened a school inside the encampments, and a mobile library. They brought in therapists and psychiatrists. This lasted for about a year. In May of 2017, operations were closed outside of Greece, as boats weren’t coming in—the Turkish government stopped many of them.

At Home

There are 243 refugee families in Seattle. According to Zawaideh, families are usually five to seven people. The SCM, now focuses on assisting refugee families settling in the area, though they still go on medical mission trips.

NGOs (non- governmental organizations) assist settled refugees for three months when they arrive in the U.S., and then they’re on their own. Zawaideh realized this was not sufficient. Refugees aren’t given a choice of what city they will be moved to, and in this area, the only place NGOs could afford to send refugees to was SeaTac. “There’s no way in hell people can stay here,” Zawaideh said. “There are needles all over the place … you’ve got prostitution up and down the street.” After the SCM complained, the refugees were moved to Tukwila by the NGOs.

Currently, the SCM works to provide programs for refugees on Saturdays with ESL (English as a second language) classes, swimming lessons, art programs and reading and writing in Arabic so refugees don’t lose their language. They also provide help with PTSD. Zawaideh recounted the story of a refugee she knows, a young girl who sat in her uncle’s lap in their home in Syria. A bomb was dropped on their house and the girl’s uncle “blew up in her face.” Being back in Seattle after the things she has seen, Zawaideh said she felt guilty being able to drive in a car or to take a shower.

Zawaideh recalled how different it was to help Iraqi refugees during the Gulf War. When Iraqis came here, they got two years of assistance from NGOs. “Two years makes sense!” Zawaideh said. “You can learn the language.” Three months, however, is not enough, she said. Families can get on food stamps, but what about electricity? Insurance? School supplies? And paying rent in Seattle? “We think Seattle is progressive, but it’s not,” Zawaideh said. People in hijabs are sometimes ridiculed. She encouraged her audience in the PUB not to let this happen. Zawaideh wants people to get between the person being harassed and the person harassing them.

“You have to weigh the risk for yourself,” she said. “There’s not anyone you’re going to meet from Syria … who hasn’t seen things that no one wants to see,” Zawaideh said. “We talk about the disaster that happened in Vegas, now imagine that 24 hours a day for the last seven years.”

The SCC librarians and the Global Affairs Center have additional information on the topics covered in this GAC event relating to refugees, sectioned into three categories: compassion, culture and education.

If you would like to volunteer with the SCM to help refugees, call 206-545-7307, or email [email protected] To donate, go to

Nellie Ferguson