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Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, Syrians Abroad Step in to Support Those in Need Back Home

Members of a humanitarian aid agency disinfect Ibn Sina hospital as prevention against coronavirus in the city of Idlib, Syria, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed)

For Kawa Hisso what began as a social media challenge to raise awareness among his friends about the spread of coronavirus in his native Syria has now become a full-fledged campaign to support those in need in the war-torn country.

Hisso, 35, is a well-known Syrian soccer player who currently lives in the Netherlands. His campaign to send financial donations to poor families in Syria has attracted hundreds of donors among Syrians living abroad.

“The idea came to me last week as I was thinking about ways to help those in Syria who are staying home now because of the coronavirus,” Hisso said.

“Most people in Syria make their wage on a daily basis. So if you don’t go to work one day, you won’t be able to bring food to your family,” he told VOA.

As countries around the world grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, the autonomous administration in northeast Syria has taken certain measures to prevent the virus from spreading, including a lockdown throughout the region. As a result, thousands of workers have been forced to stay home.

“Our campaign is encouraging every Syrian living abroad to sponsor one family back home for a month,” Hisso said, noting that “this will save thousands of families from starvation.”

He said many of his fellow Syrian sportsmen, artists and other public figures have joined him in his effort to collect donations from around the world.

Time for solidarity

The initiative has also attracted many wealthy Syrians residing outside their country.

“I pledge to support 15 families in Syria for the duration of this crisis,” Arif Ramadan, a Syrian Kurdish businessman who owns a chain of hotels and restaurants in Erbil, Iraq, said in a video posted on Facebook.

“I urge other businessmen to contribute to this beautiful campaign as we are in this crisis together and we will get out of it together,” he said.

Another Syrian businessman, who requested to remain anonymous, said the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to reflect on “our real values.”

“By donating to our people back home, we are showing them that they are not left alone and that the world is still fine,” the businessman, who now lives in Turkey, told VOA.

On the receiving end, people have expressed their gratitude for this “gesture of goodwill.”

“The donation came just in time,” said a construction worker who has been staying home since March 23 as his hometown of Qamishli in northeast Syria has been under lockdown because of the coronavirus.

“As my children and I were running out of food, some people contacted us and offered to give us food baskets that will last for a month,” he told VOA, adding that “the food staple will literally save his family from hunger.”

In the countryside of Idlib, families have been fleeing bombs for months, and many are now living out in the open, cooking on ovens they made themselves, March 1, 2020. (Courtesy of aid workers)
In the countryside of Idlib, families have been fleeing bombs for months, and many are now living out in the open, cooking on ovens they made themselves, March 1, 2020. (Courtesy of aid workers)

UN concerned

The U.N. has expressed concerns over the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, on civilians displaced in Syria, particularly in the northwestern province of Idlib.

“The U.N. expresses concern over the potential outcomes of COVID-19 on millions of people throughout Syria and especially on more than 900,000 displaced civilians in Syria’s northwest,” Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said during a video news briefing Friday.

A decade of war has largely damaged Syria’s health care system, raising fears that millions of displaced people will be more susceptible to contract the coronavirus.

The Syrian government says there have been 10 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Heath experts, however, believe the number is much higher because the country has limited resources to test patients for the virus.

On Sunday, Syrian authorities reported the first death from coronavirus in the country.

Hisso, the soccer player, says he seeks to expand the humanitarian campaign to include Syrians living in refugee camps around the Middle East.

“They are the most vulnerable ones,” he said, “they deserve to be taken care of during these difficult times.”