On Sunday, April 3, Macalester United Plymouth Church hosted a fundraiser for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), held by the grassroots organization Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria, or Minnesota CISPOS. According to Rihab Naheel, a member of CISPOS who helped to organize the event, $12,500 “and counting” was raised at the event. The event was organized primarily by Naheel and Terry Burke, members of CISPOS.
The first hour of the event consisted of a “silent auction” of local goods, such as hats and scarves, framed artwork and posters, gift cards for local businesses, vintage political buttons, magazine subscriptions and even a Sony camera. There were also numerous opportunities to donate items besides money, including a request for baby carriers for refugees.
The event included numerous speakers, who were introduced by Reverend Adam Blons, the head pastor at Macalester Plymouth. Congresswoman Betty McCollum, U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s fourth congressional district, spoke first. Mustafa Jamele, a lead aide to fifth congressional district representative Keith Ellison on foreign affairs and civil rights, among other issues, read a letter written by Ellison, who had been invited to speak but was on a flight to Argentina at the time of the event. A letter by Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was also read. All three of the politicians condemned anti-refugee attitudes in the United States, referring to them as “un-American.” Each also repeatedly stressed Minnesota’s history of welcoming refugees, and said that the elaborate screening process undergone by refugees prevents the possibility of terrorism.
“I do believe that Minnesota does have a unique role in this,” McCollum said, referring to the state’s previous accommodations for refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Sudan and others. “Your gathering here gives me the re-energization I need to go to the House floor and say, ‘Minnesota, in the fourth congressional district, we don’t preach fear; we preach love. We open our arms.’”
“We do not have to sacrifice our humanity to ensure security,” Ellison wrote in his letter. “Closing the doors on fleeing refugees is exactly what ISIS wants. It also means blaming the victims and abandoning our nation’s history of providing refuge to people escaping violence from war and religious persecution.”
The focal point of the event was a speech by Dr. Aref Al-Kali, a Syrian-American hematologist who is affiliated with the Mayo Clinic and is on SAMS’s board of directors.
According to Al-Kali, SAMS sends Syrian-American health care professionals to Syria and surrounding countries to provide medical aid. Al-Kali presented a slideshow explaining the circumstances in Syria, which have led to an incredible dearth of doctors in some of the largest cities in the country. SAMS aids people in and around Syria, has treated 2.6 million patients in its 106 medical care facilities and has provided psychosocial care to over 25,000 people.
There are targeted attacks on doctors by the Syrian government, as well as on fire stations, schools and other areas critical to sustaining communities.
“It’s clear: they want people to leave,” Al-Kali said. “Kill a doctor, and you will make a 100 or a 1,000 people leave that area. Imagine yourself living in a town where there’s no doctor!”
SAMS has 64 ambulances, which Al-Kali remembers being told not to spend too much time in during his trips to Syria, as it was more likely he would be targeted. The organization has also built one of their hospitals in a cave in the city of Homs to protect medical staff; the hospital has already survived an attack.
During Al-Kali’s speech, donation envelopes with blank checks inside were passed to attendees in offertories belonging to the church; there were no envelopes left.
One attendee and organizer of the event was Sarah Fleming ’14, who volunteers with CISPOS. According to Fleming, a great number of the event’s attendees, which totaled about 150, knew organizers from CISPOS or were affiliated with the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers.
“Some of them are people from rallies and marches; some are from CARE [Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere]; some are church members and people from the different churches that sponsored the event,” Fleming said.
One current Macalester student who attended was Farah Al Haddad ’17, a Syrian student, who expressed appreciation for the event in an email.
While she would have “loved” to see more Macalester students at the event, “It was extremely heartwarming to witness an ‘inter-generational, interfaith’ gathering that was dedicated to learning about the situation in Syria and positively contributing to it,” Haddad wrote, referencing the religious diversity of the event’s attendees.
“The organizers had to add more seats to fit everyone in, and people greeted each other in a friendly way,” Haddad continued. “I heard a couple of people speaking Arabic with a Syrian dialect, which made me feel extra nostalgic.”
She expressed gratitude for organizations such as CISPOS and SAMS, to which she hopes to contribute her own efforts in the future, and to both McCollum and Ellison for their remarks, which stood in direct opposition to anti-refugee rhetoric.