Syrian relief effort has roots in Bridgeview

Desplaines Valley News | Thursday April 25th, 2013

Virtually throughout the 2-year-old Syrian civil war, the Bridgeview-based Zakat Foundation has delivered aid to Syrians displaced by combat.

Some $8 million has flowed from Zakat Foundation of America coffers into the region, but only recently has Zakat Foundation of America Chief Operating Officer Safaa Zarzour traveled to see that money being put to use.

His reaction?

“It is not enough,” he said. “The need is too tremendous.”

Zarzour, 49, is a commissioner for the Bridgeview Park District. He is also an educator, with seats on the board of the Council of Islamic School of North America, the National Advisory Council of the Bernardin Center for Theology and Ministry of the Catholic Theological Union, the advisory council of the School of Education at St. Xavier University and Governors State University Foundation Board of Directors.

His own education was certainly furthered on March 29-April 9 trip into the region near the Turkey/Syrian border.

“There have now been close to 100,000 people killed,” Zarzour said. “Two million homes destroyed, 4 million people displaced internally, approaching two million refugees.”

“Syria is developing, in my mind, into the biggest man-made humanitarian disaster certainly this century and perhaps in recent memory.”

Rebels are seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Zarzour finds international disinterest in the conflict galling.
“You have a regime using weapons usually used on armies against civilian populations,” he said. “It is a war with no rules on the side of the government – absolutely no rules. It’s as simple as that.”

“They are doing it absolutely unabated. The world is not lifting a finger.” Thus, Zarzour, said he found a bit of a disconnect when delivering aid. Zakat Foundation of America, a 12-year-old organization that, Zarzour said, has delivered relief to over 40 countries around the globe, distributed 1,000 food packages on this last trip. Each package, Zarzour said, contained enough supplies- canned good, rice, flour, and the like- to feed a family of five for a month.

When seeing refugees uncover a box of macaroni in the relief packages, he said, “You’d think we were giving them gold.”

But, while there was appreciation for food, there was also, he said, “Total disbelief.”

“After how many ‘never agains,’ the world is allowing this to happen,” Zarzour said. “What is so vague about the criminality of the regime? What is so morally unclear?

“A lot of refugees left with just the clothes on their backs because they believed it would be over in weeks. No way would the world allow this to continue.”

Without the anticipated intervention Zarzour said, many refugees have been left with an “increasing lack of faith in humanity.”

“They like that you brought them food, but don’t talk to them about goodness or morality. They just shrug you off.”

Zarzour cannot shrug off the plight of a family of 10 or 12, living in essentially an outdoor kitchen covered by a gazebo on a rooftop, or by a young woman of no more than 16-17, left behind by her husband after a snipers bullet left her paralyzed. A bit of candy delighted the youngest of that rooftop family, but lasting impact will take more than sweets or even food for a month.

What would be more beneficial for that young woman? “A ride to the hospital that is now an hour away,” Zarzour said.

“We need a case worker system,” he added. “What I learned is you cannot cover everything. We need to focus on what we can deliver, and then do it well.

“If we say we are going to sponsor a family, then we sponsor a family. We bring them what they need – if that means food or transportation.

“We must strive to be more thorough and bring aid that is more sustainable.”

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