When Nadia Alawa moved from Japan to New Hampshire with her family in 1996, she intended to focus on raising her eight children. But years later, a single incident from the Syrian civil war compelled Alawa to turn her focus halfway across the world to help families suffering through the conflict.
When the conflict in Syria first began in March 2011, Alawa, who had never been politically active, found herself taking a keen interest. “I am half-Syrian and my husband is full Syrian, so I felt a sense of responsibility to the people in Syria to know what was going on there and a responsibility to my own children,” she says. “I wondered what my children would think if I didn’t pay attention to what was happening in Syria, if I turned my cheek to the extreme suffering of the people there.”
Then, on April 29, 2011, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib was captured by Syrian security forces in the town of Daraa, where he and his family had taken part in a protest march against the government. Hamza was held in prison for four weeks, until he was tortured to death. A video of the young boy’s body showed his face and body covered in bullet wounds, cuts and bruises, and his genitals had been severed.
“Hamza’s death made an impression on me that children are really the victims of what is happening inside Syria,” says Alawa.
Alawa became particularly concerned about the plight of women and girls who are left with no money and, often, no home after their male relatives are killed. So she created NuDay Syria, a U.S.-based organization that brings aid to millions of Syrians and provides opportunities for women in the country to support themselves.
Women & Girls Hub spoke with Alawa about the impact that NuDay Syria is having in the devastated country.
Women & Girls Hub: Where did the inspiration for NuDay Syria come from?
Nadia Alawa: After about a year of just watching what was happening in Syria, I started to get involved in community fund-raising events in New England. At the time I called myself a freelance humanitarian activist because I didn’t have aspirations to start an organization. I started connecting aid organizations inside Syria with the money I raised. By doing that I started to connect with people inside of Syria, and so I was forming a network of people who wanted to help.
At the same time, I was putting together aid containers of goods to send to people in Syria, but I started to feel like this was a waste of time. I was doing a lot of work and other organizations were using the aid I raised and my network inside of Syria to deliver the aid but I was still having to beg them [the organizations] to take on projects inside Syria that I felt needed the most aid. This encouraged me to start my own organization.
Women & Girls Hub: How did you build up your network of volunteers inside of Syria?
Alawa: Initially when I started doing events in New England I was working with people who had strong connections to Syria and knew people who had been detained by [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad and who were now released and working in government opposition in Syria. So I started to ask them to help me with aid, to do things like locate orphans who needed milk so that we could deliver it to them.
We built up our own reliable network for NuDay Syria very slowly, because it is very important when you are working with people inside of Syria that there is a lot of vetting. The people we work with have to be well-known and trusted members of the community. So we work with a lot of local council members.
We now have between six and eight teams in Syria and under each team we have five to 20 people.
Women & Girls Hub: Are the people working for NuDay safe in Syria?
Alawa: No one is safe inside Syria. These are people who have made a conscious decision to risk their lives to help others.
Women & Girls Hub: What kind of tangible relief has NuDay Syria provided?
Alawa: Right now we are building and reinventing schools in northern Syria. We also support different schools that are in besieged areas near the capital. We just piloted a program to build 100 cinder-block homes in a camp for internally displaced people. We had the blocks fabricated locally in Syria because we are trying to encourage the economy in areas we work in and we wanted to get manufacturing going. We also do aid containers where people send clothing, stuffed animals for the children and food items. And we run soccer camps in northern Syria for the children. All of these things might look small to us [in the U.S.], but to people who have been starved from war and are just waiting to hear more bad news, all of these small things really empower them and give them hope.
Women & Girls Hub: NuDay Syria places a special emphasis on creating programs that help women in Syria…
Alawa: Our focus is on women and children and we want to empower women and provide aid with dignity. We run social businesses where women can work to make money, we want to empower women who have lost everything. NuDay Syria is known for setting up mentorship programs for women and girls, thus encouraging involvement and the potential for learning. Empowerment for us is an attitude and a way of interaction where we build up women instead of viewing women as passive or too fragile to have a voice of their own.
The original version of this story appeared on Women & Girls Hub.