A Syrian Muslim refugee told the New York Board of Rabbis Monday how the hatred against Israelis that he grew up with changed after he saw Israeli Jews provide fellow refugees with medical help and food.
The man, who identified himself only as Amin to protect family members still in Syria, told 40 board members and religious leaders of other faiths that in working with Israelis he has come to appreciate them and to see that Syrian Muslims and Israeli Jews are “very close in our habits and mentality.”
“We have the same nose and curly hair,” he said. “We look so much alike it’s amazing how we could hate each other so much.”
Amin was a guest of the Board of Rabbis and the Multi-Faith Alliance for Syrian Refugees in Jordan, an umbrella organization of 35 groups created last September to raise awareness of the refugee crisis in Jordan and to raise funds for disaster relief agencies there.
The alliance is “an outgrowth of a disaster relief response” by a dozen Jewish organizations, said Rabbi Eric Greenberg, the alliance’s director of communications, outreach and interfaith affairs.
“The alliance was created to help refugees in Jordan because Jordan has taken in so many more refugees proportionately than other countries and they are impacting its infrastructure,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “Every day women, men and children walk across Jordan’s border from Syria. A fourth camp was just set up. The children are not going to school anymore; this will be a lost generation of Syrian kids who will be traumatized and not taught anything.”
There are 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan who are registered with the United Nations, Amin said. An equal number are in Jordan as unregistered refugees. The country has a population of 6 million.
Of Syria’s 23 million residents, about 200,000 have been killed since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011, 6 million are refugees outside of Syria and another 5 to 6 million are internally displaced from their home towns, Amin said.
In his remarks, Amin said that not only has his perception about Israelis and Jews changed, but that other Syrian refugees have been similarly “transformed” by the relief efforts of Jewish groups and Israeli Jews.
“We have had people flown to Israel and treated for a month or two in Israeli hospitals and then flown back to Syria,” he said. “This is not known, but a lot of people have gone to Israel for treatment. The number flown in is in the tens, but the number of people who crossed the border to get treatment in Israeli hospitals is probably hundreds. …“I see people now as humans and not as Muslims, Christians, Jews, Shiites and Sunnis.”
“Syria was ruled by a fascist Arabic party and we were told Israel is occupying our land, that they want to terrorize us, that they are funded by Zionist organizations all over the world, and that their aim is to destroy us,” he said. “They told us that everyday; it was the norm — they want to kill us and we have to kill them.”
When the Arab spring uprising erupted in Tunisia and Libya, few thought it would spread to Syria, Amin said. But after a dozen Syrian schoolchildren were arrested for scrawling a message calling for the overthrow of the Assad regime, “the head of security told their parents to go home and forget about their children.”
“He said, ‘Sleep with your wife to produce new children, and if you can’t, I will send you my men to sleep with your wives to make more children,’” Amin said. “The people were insulted and the unrest started spreading from one city to another for different reasons. The response was so brutal that it led to more demonstrations. … The president gave a speech and said that if the demonstrations continue, we will go to war and people will suffer. It didn’t stop and so people were shot and killed.”
Because hospital personnel were under orders to report any civilians who showed up for treatment from bullet wounds, Amin, a medical worker, said the wounded were cared for in people’s homes. He said his medical clinic sent medical supplies to those homes surreptitiously for a year.
“Some of my friends were captured and tortured,” Amin said. “At the beginning of 2013, I was approached by a group that wanted to get aid to Syria. I said OK, anyone who is offering help is welcome. I didn’t believe it when they said they were Israelis. I thought that maybe they were Israeli intelligence, I could not believe an Israeli NGO [non-governmental organization] was doing it with the help of Israeli donors and volunteers who were working with Syrian NGOs.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said later that realization was a “real eye-opener” for Amin.
“It took him until he was in his mid-40s to see the truth,” he said. “What we are taught early on unfortunately has a pernicious, lasting impact on the hearts and minds of people. Think of all the other people who are not exposed to what he saw and go through life with that endless hatred of the Jew.”
Amin told the clergy that his goal now is to speak to religious leaders about what is happening in the refugee camps.
“We think religious leaders have a moral authority, that what they say is important to a lot of people,” he said. “We need the help of your congregations. We are trying to spread the message that they can help people they don’t know. … Sometimes international aid does not get to the right people. That is why NGOs have to go in and do the work themselves.”
Asked about the civil war in Syria, Amin said the West cannot abandon the Middle East.
“Israel is fighting and doing some of the stuff you couldn’t do,” he said. “You have allies like Turkey and the Gulf States, as well as Syrian moderates on the ground who are allies. No one [in the U.S.] wants another Middle East war, but train your allies and they will do the job for you.”
“We need to help our allies,” he added, “because if we abandon them, the terrorists will gain momentum.”