The aid provided by Israeli humanitarian groups to displaced Syrians can serve as a lesson for how people from different countries, religions, and political perspectives can work together to ease their plight, a Syrian refugee said at a congressional briefing Tuesday.
Shadi Martini, a native of Aleppo who today serves as a senior advisor to the nonprofit Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees (MFA), became involved in relief work in March 2011, shortly after the regime of Bashar al-Assad began violently clamping down on unarmed protesters calling for democratic reforms. Martini and his colleagues organized assistance to injured civilians through an underground network, even as the regime targeted anyone suspected of assisting the Syrian opposition.
“I became a refugee for a simple reason,” Martini said during a briefing hosted by MFA. “I saw that at that point in history, it was not right for me to ignore the cries of people who are suffering injuries, and who are deprived of their ability to seek medical attention, a simple thing. But apparently, as one Syrian government official told us, ‘look, we’re not shooting them so you guys can save their lives.’ So it was obvious to us that what we were doing was very dangerous.”
Martini was forced to flee Syria when his covert aid operation was exposed in mid-2012. The Syrian civil war, now in its fifth year, has since devolved into one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since the Second World War.
Martini recalled that his network was assisted by relief workers from across the region. But one thing that was “amazing” and “astonishing” to them was when they “saw NGOs from Israel coming to aid Syrians.”
“That was a shock for us,” Martini said. “You know, there’s no love lost between Syrians and Israelis. I can tell you that. But all of a sudden, we looked at each other and said, ‘why are you doing this?’ And the simple [answer] was, ‘because you need our help.’ Somehow we managed to bypass all our political differences, all our anger, and work together with other groups, through faith lines, and it just didn’t matter.”
Martini said the experience helped change his perception of Israelis. In Syria, “Israel was [viewed] as a bloc, as like all Israelis have the same ideas and same attitude towards Arabs, and especially the Palestinian issue is very vital to Syrians and to all Arabs. So it just gave me a different perspective,” he explained. While he met people who had diverging opinions on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “what was interesting is we were able put our political differences aside. Somehow we managed to understand that we can be different, we don’t have to agree on the same issue, but at the same time we can work together on a more important matter, which is saving lives.”
“I think that’s a lesson that can be applied across the Middle East,” Martini continued. “You know, it’s the situation here in the U.S. At the end of the day, everyone has disagreements with the other, see the elections now. But at the same time, there are issues that we can all work together, and I think the refugee issue is one of them.”
Tuesday’s event was headlined by the Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham, whose father was a Syrian Christian refugee who settled in the United States. “Can you imagine being driven out of America with your family, with no place to go?” Abraham asked. “Can you then imagine how grateful you would be to the people who took you in? I would offer myself and my children to defend any people who opened their doors to me, and so would you.”
Other speakers included MFA founder Dr. Georgette Bennett, a Hungarian refugee born to Holocaust survivors; Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.); and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
Tower senior editor Ben Cohen profiled MFA’s efforts to aid refugees while building bridges between Syrians and Israelis in the January 2015 issue of The Tower Magazine.
For the most part, the world seems to have no idea what to do about this devastating humanitarian crisis. But a small and dedicated group of activists, led by Georgette Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and a New York-based interfaith activist who founded the Multi-Faith Alliance for Syrian Refugees in Jordan (MFA), is trying to change that.
She and her colleagues are fighting an uphill battle. The type of attention, funds, and supplies that refugees from other humanitarian crises tend to receive simply haven’t been forthcoming when it comes to the Syrian crisis. “I don’t think it’s donor fatigue,” Bennett told me, referring to the phenomenon in which disasters seem so prevalent and unsolvable that people simply give up on trying to help the victims. Rather, it’s because of the nature of the Syrian war itself. “We’ve seen so much brutality from the regime,” she says, “as well as from the extremists in the opposition,” that potential donors to Syria can’t tell “who the good guys are, who it is that we need to help.” In other words, the very forces that created the crisis and claimed the lives of over 200,000 Syrians have colluded to make the struggle of the survivors to exist as miserable as possible. …
Her new endeavor, the MFA, is characterized by a dual mission. The first mission is to raise both awareness of and funding for aid organizations assisting Syrian refugees in Jordan. The second—in essence, an unintended consequence of the first—concerns what Bennett describes as a “small glimmer of hope”: Syrian activists who work with Israeli aid agencies in order to provide relief for Syrian refugees.
“Israelis and Syrians engaging in a positive way is a very exciting aspect of our humanitarian work,” Bennett says. At a recent meeting in London with a senior official of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Bennett went so far as to describe Israel as a potential “staging area” for aid delivery. Obviously, she acknowledged, there are myriad political obstacles to this. At the same time, however, the plight of the refugees demands the kind of creative thinking that circumvents the long-established political and diplomatic disputes between Middle Eastern states. As Miliband argued, “Successive UN resolutions have failed to deliver for the innocent inside and outside Syria. We need to pick up the call for political action that can stop the killing as NGOs staunch the dying.”
[Photo: Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees]