Since last month’s terror attacks in Paris and last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, the issues of Syrian refugees and radical Islam has risen to the top of the national political agenda. Presidential candidate Donald Trump in particular has singled out Muslims as potentially dangerous. President Obama recently called on Americans to respect Muslims and separate the vast majority of them from the relatively small number of Islamic radicals.
But are people in New Hampshire answering the president’s call? Nadia Alawa, the founder and president of NuDay Syria, a local nonprofit that focuses on empowerment and help with dignity to Syria's mothers and children, spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello.
You’re in a hands-on position when it comes to helping people in Syria, and you’ve been doing this work since before the attacks in Paris last month. Have things changed at NuDay Syria since the events of November 13th?
Things have changed in many different ways, some in good ways. As for NuDay Syria, we’re receiving a lot of interest from many new groups of people, Americans who previously were on the sidelines about what was happening in Syria are now starting to want to help. So in terms of what we do for containers, we have huge numbers of people who want to collect new items, who want to participate in doing the containers, and likewise with donations. We’re seeing new groups of people all over the United States and especially here in New England who want to be part of helping those mothers and children in being—making their own statement that they understand that humanity is at stake here and not letting terrorism be their voice.
Those containers you’re speaking of are actual materials that you’ll send to Syria to help these people.
Yes. We do send in huge containers. We call them “Vessels of Hope.” They’re full of items people donate either from their homes or they go out shopping and share their groceries, their children’s stuffed animals, warm blankets, coats, food items. These containers have been going inside northern Syria for over three years now to civilians, mostly women and children, the wounded, elderly, families in general. And they really serve as a real, tangible bridge between families here in the US and families inside Syria.
So that seems to be the warm-hearted response that people here have felt in response to all these tragedies in the past month or so. What’s the other side of that? Has there been another side?
There has been another side. That’s more a personal side. I dress as a Muslim. I have a head cover on as do many other women like me. Whereas before we were still the other but trying to have a relationship with other people, I have definitely felt a strong sense of distance between people in social groups and just outside when I walk outside in general. And there’s also a level of fear that I didn’t have before the Paris attacks.
What do you mean by that? What fear?
There is a level of fear. We know that there are irrational people outside, and we know also that there are people who feed off the rhetoric that’s going on in the media right now. And these are fears that, after 9/11, we lived with for two or three years, every time we left the house. For me, I feel more on alert than I have ever been after 9/11.
Have you spoken with friends who feel the same way?
A lot of people feel the same way. There have been a few attacks, a lot of verbal attacks, and some pushing and pulling and—it became sort of like, Muslims (and by Muslims I probably mean Muslim women since we are so visible because we wear the head cover) became fair game. If someone who used to maybe not know who Muslims are or who used to have their own issues with Muslims, now with the rhetoric in the media and from certain politicians and pseudo-leaders, we became fair game. You can easily attack us. It’s okay.
How did you feel about President Obama’s address to the nation in which he asked people to respect Muslims?
It was too little too late. We had George W. Bush step up right away and say Muslims are part of the American society, we all live together. I felt that Obama has been so hesitant, it’s like he’s afraid of being accused of standing with Muslims, even though, as American citizens, we all should stand together, so I thought he sent out a lot of mixed messages.
What can the average person from New Hampshire do to combat this angry rhetoric that seems to be putting folks like you under some measure of stress?
Really, what would mean a lot to people like me and Muslims in New Hampshire would be—people, they take the time to reach out a little bit more. When something happens like this, and when it’s so obvious that your Muslim neighbors are under attack in the media, it’s okay if you go over and talk to them, even if you don’t know them and haven’t spoken to them before. Maybe they moved in, or you moved in after them. But reach out. Talk to the people around you.