RIVERDALE — Beneath the din of political rhetoric and aside from an executive order issued by President Donald Trump that has greatly restricted the ability of refugees to resettle in the U.S., Utahns are quietly working to help positively impact the lives of those displaced by the long-running crisis in Syria.
On Saturday, dozens of volunteers joined organizers from Lifting Hands International and Helping Hand for Relief and Development to fill a shipping container with critical supplies needed by Syrian refugees in Jordan. The donations came from thousands of Utahns across the state and, according to Gul Siddiqi, the Southwest Coordinator for Helping Hand, will help make the harsh refugee camp conditions a bit easier to bear.
"Many refugees in Jordan are living in incredibly difficult, desert conditions," Siddiqi said. "Last year I visited the area with a group of students from the U.S. on a humanitarian trip. The living environment is heartbreaking."
Siddiqi described mothers resorting to covering their sleeping children with plastic in order to keep them from being bitten by scorpions or snakes during nap time.
"Of course, here we are all aware of the dangers of plastic sheeting to children," Siddiqi said. "But for these displaced families, it is just what is necessary."
More than 1,300 boxes containing diapers, hygiene kits, clothing, toothpaste, laundry soap and other items will get distributed directly to those in need. Clarissa Larsen, director of Utah operations forLifting Hands, said her organization partnered with Siddiqi's group to coordinate all the challenges of getting the supplies halfway around the world and, most importantly, ensure that the supplies get into the hands of those in need.
"Helping Hand really has been our eyes and ears on the ground there," Larsen said. "Many refugees have been forced to find places outside of the established camps, in some cases squatting on farmland. Helping Hand has been able to identify those places where they are not receiving government aid of any kind."
Siddiqi said Helping Hand is a registered refugee assistance group in Jordan and works with government organizations to ensure the shipped donations are properly documented and able to earn expedited port clearance there. Larsen said the partnership works very well and helps assure Utah donors that their giving really does make a difference.
"Most of these refugee families have left their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs and whatever they could carry," Larsen said. "All of these items donated by Utahns really help sustain them."
Both Larsen and Siddiqi also noted the collaborative efforts on the donor side of the equation are serving as an informal, but effective, bridge between cultures.
"Seeing how people are coming together, regardless of their religious or cultural backgrounds, to recognize this huge number of people in need and do what they can, is just really awesome," Larsen said. "Our world is too filled with hatred and bigotry and anger. This work, and seeing so many different people pulling together ... it shows that there is still kindness and dignity and respect."
Aamina Khaleel was among the volunteers helping cart boxes from a loaned warehouse space in Riverdale to a waiting shipping container. She started collecting donations on her own last April, with the help of friends, neighbors and local mosques, after some buddies encouraged her to get involved.
"A couple of my friends who used to live here were doing a Syrian refugee drive in New Jersey," Khaleel said. "I thought it would be cool to expand the effort into Utah."
In just four months, Khaleel was able to fill a Bluffdale warehouse as well as a neighbor's garage with items gathered specifically for the predominantly Muslim refugees from Syria. Items that did not suit the religion's modesty requirements were donated to other outlets like Deseret Industries or Catholic Community Services. Khaleel was surprised by her success in amassing donations and also intimidated by what to do next. A search for Utah groups working with Syrian refugees led her to Larsen and Siddiqi. She also noted how the work has been a positive lesson in making a difference.
"I think it showed, especially for people my age, how you can take the first step locally," the 23-year-old said. "We all want to change the world, and that’s really overwhelming, but it can literally start right here."
Khaleel said working with such a wide variety of people in the effort to help Syrian refugees was particularly gratifying, even as her experience as a Muslim Utahn has been impacted by a changing tone in political discourse about refugees who are also members of her religion.
"For me at least, it’s never felt any different until, unfortunately, this last presidential election," Khaleel said. "I guess it was more of the rhetoric that was circulating in the media."
Khaleel said she also started hearing from girls in her Sunday school class who were having negative experiences because they wore the hijab. She said it helped motivate her to seek out opportunities for dialogue on the issue among her peers at Westminster College, where she got overwhelming support. She also noted the Muslim community in Utah is very close-knit, which has been a positive at a time when some outside commentaries on the Muslim faith have been unfairly critical.
Larsen said education and cultural enlightenment was an important aspect of the work being done by her group.
"For those of us working in this area, we know that the refugees are not ISIS," Larsen said. "ISIS has destroyed their homes and families and they hate ISIS more than we do.
"We hope our efforts help educate people to realize that Muslims are not our enemies," Larsen said.
According to the U.N., more than 5 million Syrians have sought refuge outside of their country and over 6 million have been internally displaced since 2011.