HICKORY, N.C. (AP) — For Sami Alkoutami and his family, Syria is more than a name on a map or a headline on the evening news.
It’s the ancestral home of Alkoutami, a 2012 St. Stephens High graduate. His father, Dr. Ghassan Alkoutami, moved to the United States in the 1980s to finish his medical training. While his family made a home for themselves in Hickory, they never forgot their cultural roots. His father is from Damascus and his mother is from Homs. They visited Syria every year until 2011 and the Arab Spring and the start of a civil war in the country.
Eventually, Alkoutami, along with his mother (Rana) and youngest sister (Heidi) decided it was time to reach out to Syria again. Only this time, their destination was a refugee camp in Jordan where they spent part of the summer helping any way they could.
Numbers speak volumes when it comes to Syria and its current state.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 4.8 million Syrians have fled the country to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and parts of Europe. There are also 6.6 million displaced internally.
“I finally was we need to do something. I need to do something,” Sami Alkoutami said. “I can’t see the people who’ve given me so much culture and my history and my background, I can’t see them suffering. I need to do something.”
He decided to volunteer at Zaatari, the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. It is two square miles in size with nearly 80,000 refugees living within its borders just miles from Syria.
In 2011, Syria was swept up in the Arab Spring — a series of civil protests focused on greater democratization. The movement started in Tunisia in 2010.
Rana Alkoutami actually visited the camp with her oldest daughter last year. It was only for two hours but it had a powerful impact when she shared the story with Sami and Heidi.
In Jordan, the family eventually joined QuestScope to volunteer in the camp. Sami was impressed with the vision of QuestScope, which focused on training mentors to produce social, educational, and entrepreneurial opportunities for marginalized youth, according to the organization’s website.
“Their philosophy is the people who can help the Syrians the most are Syrians so what they do is train older Syrian refugees on how to be a mentor, how to be a teacher,” Sami Alkoutami said.
Mentors teach classes on gender roles, gender discrimination, the English language and even teach athletics.
His family worked in the camp for five days, and he helped as an English tutor. Many of the students he was helping were trying to apply for scholarships in Canada. Between November 2015 and February 2016, Canada welcomed 25,000 Syrians, according to the Canadian government’s website.
“I think the West has a view of refugees as people with tattered clothes and they’re only good at accepting things we tell them they should have,” Sami Alkoutami said. “The thing is, not one of the refugees I worked with in Jordan asked for money. All they asked for was an opportunity.they just want to tell their story.”
Sami Alkoutami said what he saw was a group of refugees looking to create as much of a community as they could.
“They opened shopping streets. they’ve opened up barber shops. They’ve opened up little markets, food stores,” Sami Alkoutami said. “They started circulating their money and they wanted to work. You ask all of them, the No. 1 thing that got them out of their dark times was to work. They want a sense of pride again.”
Like her son, Rana Alkoutami felt they had a message about Syrian refugees they needed to share.
“They live a miserable life in the camp, but they still have hope,” she said. “We worked so hard to get approval to go to the Zaatari.it was sad and very, very beautiful. There was life in the middle of the desert. It’s so painful to know those kids there, they never saw a tree.”
Rana Alkoutami went on to describe the camp as virtually colorless.
“They have the grey of the caravans (refugee houses), the ground and the sky,” she said, adding the Syrians did find ways to add a splash of color to the camp.
“They started painting those caravans with trees and flowers, so they started adding life to that piece of desert out of nothing. It was hard but it was rewarding that we were able to reach out.”
For Heidi Alkoutami, it was very much a place of two worlds. She saw the camp in front of her but she also saw bits and pieces of the Syria she remembered visiting when she was younger. She spent her time getting to know many of the girls her age at the camp.
“I feel like the Syrian refugees really do cultivate a sense of family. They come from different cities,” she said. “Some experienced civil war better or worse than others but they all come and they all support each other.
“They’re the welcoming, heartwarming, loving, caring, positive Syrians that I always knew and will never forget. I just feel like around the world people think of refugees as being voiceless or hopeless but they’re completely different and they deserve better.”
Rana Alkoutami remembered watching her daughter share hugs and goodbyes with her new friends in the camp and realized how everyone in the camp, Christian or Muslim, was more alike than different.
“You know we are Christian and they’re wearing hijabs (covers Muslim women wear to cover their head) and that moment I felt humanity is beyond all religion,” Rana Alkoutami said. “It was just pure humanity and pure love and respect.”
Heidi Alkoutami added those final goodbyes with her friends showed barriers can be eliminated between different religions and cultures.
Another telling moment for Sami Alkoutami was during the Islamic holiday Ramadan at the camp.
“We were all sitting at night, talking and joking and then they started sharing poems they used to read in Syria,” he said. “I remember just sitting there and I was looking down and just listening to the voices and it almost felt like I was back in Syria.
“You almost felt like there wasn’t a war happening seventy miles away. You felt like everything was OK but then you look around and there’s sand and you have fences.”
He admits leaving the camps was hard. It was like he was leaving a piece of home. He knows all Syrian refugees hope to return home themselves someday.
“These people are trying to be something, trying to live their lives,” Sami Alkoutami said. “What separates us from them. it’s the fact that I have five shirts in my closet and they have one that’s on their back.”
Sami Alkoutami just finished his undergraduate work at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., with a biology degree and minor in Middle Eastern studies. His goal is medical school but more immediately, he hopes to make another trip to Zaatari next year if he can.
He suggests anyone else interested in helping to start by visiting questscope.com.
Information from: The Hickory Daily Record, http://www.hickoryrecord.com