The first thing I see when I walk up to the warehouse in a Bothell suburb, is a green, white and black striped Syrian flag with the word “Freedom” written across the bottom.
“Would you like a tea?” Ayman Hakim asks as I negotiate a large box of children’s shoes sitting on the cement floor, “In Syria you’re always offered tea first.”
As I wait for Hakim to return with the tea, I rub my hands together against the cold and watch a gray coat, a striped pair of athletic pants and a Bill Cosby-style sweater fly through the chilly air and land on a blue tarp.
About 20 people, almost all from our region’s small Syrian community, are spending their Sunday sorting through piles of donated clothes. They’ve commissioned a 40-foot shipping container and they plan to fill it with supplies.
“They have no tents, no clothes,” says Hakim a wholesaler by trade and owner of the warehouse
“And the weather over there … it’s cold, harsh weather.”
Hakim is referring to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians that are estimated to have fled fighting for the relative safety of refugee camps in neighboring countries.
This shipping container is headed for camps along the Syrian-Turkish border, where there have been recent reports of cold weather and inadequate supplies.
He says that he and two other friends will pay the shipping costs (about $4,500), and that business contacts in Turkey will help the shipment through customs. But they need help figuring out distribution in the camps.
They also need more donations.
“Blankets, blankets, blankets … and jackets,” recites Hazim Mohaisen, when I ask what else they’re hoping to collect before the container is sent off.
Mohaisen, Hakim and all the others here today are determined to help any way they can.
They are from Damascus, Homs and Aleppo — Syrian cities in the headlines regularly for street battles and bombings.
They’ve been watching their home country fall apart on the evening news for almost two years. Collecting stories of rape, torture and hunger from family and enduring terrifying periods of information blackout when the Syrian government turns off the Internet — as they did last week.
“My wife is constantly crying on the phone with her family. We’re all always on Facebook trying to figure out what’s going on,” says Mohaisen, who is a software engineer, before he turns his attention to ripping open plastic bags and sorting their contents into separate piles of clothes designated for men, women and children.
“It’s constant worry, it’s very scary.”
The sound of Arabic echoing off the bare walls, the thump of cardboard boxes on the hard floor and the steam from my hot tea remind me of a day I spent reporting from a massive aid distribution center for refugees in Douma, a small city outside of Damascus.
At the time Syria was home to one of the largest populations of Iraqis escaping violence in their own country. I was interviewing them that afternoon as they lined up to collect boxes of oil and bags of grains to help feed their families.
It’s seems bitterly ironic now — that Syria was so recently considered a safe haven to anyone. It was almost exactly two years ago. I remember the date because I went to a holiday party complete with Santa hats that night after work.
“Douma is on the ground [now],” one of the volunteers in Bothell told me describing the destruction his cousins relayed to him from back in Syria.
Much of the conversation over piles of clothes revolves around how much longer the current president of Syria, Bashar Assad, will cling to power. People seemed to be referring to “when” Assad leaves instead of “if.”
Recent reports that the government is preparing chemical weapons have led U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to speculate that the regime may be in its last, desperate, days.
Whatever happens everyone I talked to in Bothell agreed that, given the displaced people and damaged infrastructure, Syrians are going to need help for some time to come.
“If the Assad regime leaves tomorrow this is not over,” says Mohaisen. “The whole country is destroyed.”
In response, Hakim and Mohaisen helped form the Syrian American Coordination Committee of Washington about two months ago.
They say this donation effort is only the beginning for their group and that their next shipping container will have medical supplies in it.