The United Nations estimates that the death toll from the Syrian crisis has surpassed 60,000. Four million people inside the country are in need of humanitarian assistance, and up to one million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries could need help during the first half of this year.
The U.S. government has largely stayed out of the crisis, but that hasn’t stopped two people in Orange County from getting very involved.
When Omar Chamma traveled recently to the Syrian-Turkish border, he packed 19 bags of food and medical supplies – enough to incur $1600 in excess baggage fees on American Airlines.
He also carried $250,000 in donations to buy more supplies when he arrived. It was his seventh trip in a year.
"Every time I fly out of Istanbul, I say, ‘This is my last time. I’m not going to go back again,’" Chamma said. “But then I think about what I’ve seen, the desperation in their eyes. And every time I go back, there is no one there to help them.”
Chamma isn’t a doctor or an aid worker. He invests in real estate, and apparently, he's very good at raising money. He estimates he’s collected more than $1.5 million – mostly from Syrian friends – to help refugees.
That money buys blankets, sleeping bags, kids’ shoes, medicine and hundreds of boxes of sutures. That’s because Chamma saw refugees rolling up plastic bags to try and stitch their wounds.
“They have no bandages, no medication, and no antibiotics,” Chamma said. “I went to a house one day and there were 55 people living in one, two-bedroom home, with no doctors. Most people coming through the border are severely injured civilians from bombings or shootings or they’re burn victims.”
"Not every wife would support their husband going into a war zone"
Chamma is a native of Damascus. He moved to the United States to study engineering at Louisiana State University in the 1980s. That’s when he met his future wife, Mavis Benton Chamma. Now, she reluctantly sees her husband depart every few weeks.
“Not every wife would support their husband going into a war zone, don’t get me wrong," she said, sitting next to her husband in their Fountain Valley home. “Every time he goes I just leave it to God. If something is going to happen, at least I know he’s doing what he believes in.”
Mavis Chamma said that as hard as it for her and their three children, she knows why her husband has to go.
“I’m from Louisiana,” she explained. “If somebody was invading Louisiana, I’m going to go there,” she said.
Omar Chamma used to visit his uncles, aunts and cousins in Damascus before the war. He worries that if Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad wins the conflict, he will never be able to see them again.
“If the regime will succeed there is no way I can go visit this country anymore and the close family I have there will be in danger,” Chamma said. “This brutal regime will not stop until somebody stops them.”
Silverado Canyon woman backpacked to border to help
Chamma said dozens of other Americans have traveled to the border to help. One of them is Sama Wareh, a 29-year-old artist who lives in the Santa Ana Mountains.
Her parents are from Damascus, and before the war, she visited her cousins in the capital city many times. In November, Wareh backpacked – by herself – to the same border town of Reyhanli that Chamma goes to.
She sold her motorcycle and her paintings to pay for the trip – and raised thousands of dollars from friends.
“My thinking was that if there are thousands of refugees in Turkey right now and more are crossing the border every day, there have to be a lot that are not in the refugee camps that no one knows about, so my whole thing I was going to look for those people,” Wareh said.
She found plenty of people who needed help. She took them grocery shopping, bought them blankets and heaters, and paid their rent. When we met in Newport Beach, next to the gallery where she works, Wareh was wearing her usual wardrobe: a cowboy hat that covered her hijab, and western boots.
She wore the same boots when she went to the Syrian border. Only then, she slipped in a knife for security. She didn’t have to use it and she never crossed over to the Syrian side, because of a promise she made to her parents.
“They were like, ‘Please! We’re already terrified you’re going by yourself,’” she recalled. “‘Just at least don’t go into Syria.’ Everyday people would tell me ‘I can get you and in and out and it will be safe’ and it was hard to tell them ‘No, I promised my parents I couldn’t do it.’”
Wareh is planning a return trip to the Syrian border, and this time she will make no such promise to her parents.
Omar Chamma is preparing for an eighth trip, at the end of the month.