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Students Plan Dinner, Art Auction to Support Syrians, Refugees

Adam Morin and Mohammed Willis
(l-r) Adam Morin ’18 and Mohammed Willis ’18 (photo: Royce Chen)

Social media platforms have become tools for demonstrations of support and solidarity in response to tragic national and international events. We saw the flurry of #PrayforParis hashtags after the attacks in Paris last fall; we witnessed a wave of rainbow profile pictures after the Orlando nightclub shooting in June; we saw pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness in October; and the list goes on. Each time an event or a cause makes headlines, it seems the Internet invariably responds.

Yet, these sorts of online shows of support don't always translate into organized activism.

Students Adam Morin '18 and Mohammed Willis '18, in response to the devastating effects of the Syrian Civil War, aim to build both online awareness and offline activism at Davidson to offer real help to Syrian refugees and those still in Syria.

The war has brought five years, seven months and two weeks (and counting) of violence and political turmoil, resulting in roughly 500,000 people killed, more than 7.6 million internally displaced, and more than 4 million refugees. In cities like Aleppo, roughly 95 percent of doctors have either fled or been killed.

To combat Syria's pressing need for funding and medical care, Morin and Willis, both Bonner Scholars, are working through Elon University's Speak Out For Syrians (SOS) website to organize a U.S. State Department-sponsored Syrian art dinner and inspire North Carolina donors and doctors to break the cycle of passive activism.

Davidson College will host the dinner Dec. 3, featuring a silent auction of contemporary Syrian art. Funds raised through dinner donations and the silent auction will go directly to Syrians in need.

Why art?

Art is a way for Syrians to circumvent censorship in a nation where opposing the government often results in torture, imprisonment or execution. Buying a piece of art will allow people to "simultaneously own a piece of history and save Syrian lives," Willis said.

"[Art is] a powerful and authentic tool to counter the narratives of terror groups inside Syria, and counter xenophobia about Syrian refugees," he said.

The auction will feature art pieces by Syrian sculptor Monkith Saaid and watercolorist Etab Hreib. Saaid's works focus on the idea of balance, while Hreib's panel works are inspired by the Ghouta chemical attack.

A ‘Family' Dinner

Syrian Boy
Doctors at Zataari Refugee Camp would play with the children after hours, Morin recounts from his medical mission trip.

In addition to serving traditional Syrian dishes, Morin and Willis aim to recreate the feeling of community and togetherness characteristic of a Syrian family dinner. To that end, there will be no staff servers for the meal.

"We want people to sit all together. To reach in for food together," said Willis.

He and Morin also are bringing several speakers to the event, including Charlotte Refugee Resettlement Agency consultant Alia Nassri, Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) treasurer Mohammed Sekkarie, and members of a refugee family from Charlotte.

Willis hopes that the family's story will serve to help to humanize refugees in the eyes of others.

"We're not different.... Syria's a small country–most people have never met anyone from there. And I think something as simple as sitting at a table.... [to] find out more about their stories and eat their cuisine can be very helpful," Willis said.

Partnership with Impact

Morin and Willis are pleased to partner with the nonprofit, nonpolitical SAMS for the event.

Morin personally served with SAMS at Zataari Refugee Camp for over a month, and was impressed with its operations. Some "relief groups" have been known to distribute donations unequally, favoring certain demographics and even giving resources to the army instead, he explained. However, SAMS operates with just four percent administrative overhead (money spent on operating costs), boasts an average $9 cost per patient, and treated more than 2.3 million Syrians in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan during 2015 alone.

Morin and Willis hope to recruit the funding and personnel necessary to start a SAMS chapter in North Carolina.

SAMS's focus on helping people of all races and religions has earned the trust of Syrians and philanthropists alike. The organization has been featured by CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and National Geographic, among others. Financially contributing to such organizations is the biggest step that locals can take to make a difference, Morin believes.

"As important as [awareness] is, we now need to focus on our actions," he said. "What we see is a great organization.... actually on the ground relieving suffering [and] saving lives, and that has been proven. What we can do is support them, whether by fundraising or raising awareness of them, or even sending doctors or physicians on medical trips with them. "

Willis echoed Morin's sentiments, adding that many people underestimate their ability to spark change:

"I know a big obstacle toward action is when you look on the news and you see the statistics–millions are displaced, hundreds of thousands are dead, and it's very easy to look at the entire situation and say, ‘There's nothing that I could ever do that would possibly help this situation.' But that's not the case. There really is a great deal that we can do in the United States. Depending on what you do, you might never see the people that you help, but they're very real and you truly can make a difference and save lives."

Want to attend?
The Syrian art dinner will take place Dec. 3 in Davidson College's Lilly Family Gallery. One hundred percent of all auction bids will benefit SAMS's relief efforts in the city of Aleppo. Those interested in attending should email admorin@davidson.edu and visit www.speakout4syrians.org

Royce Chen '20
rochen@davidson.edu