Activist doesn't want Americans 'growing numb' to plight of Syrian refugees

Lena Arkawi said she wakes up every day to photos of dead children on her phone.

ByABC News
October 31, 2017, 10:04 AM

— -- Lena Arkawi wakes up every day to photos of dead children on her phone. She's part of a network of American activists working to help the people of Syria, but this job comes with the frustration of knowing she cannot help everyone who needs it.

Arkawi is a Syrian-American who grew up without a strong connection to her Syrian roots, she said. “As a child, I wanted to be a full-out American girl … I was really embarrassed that I was Arab or Muslim. So I would tell my friends, ‘No, no, I'm white. I don't know what you're talking about,’” she said.

After a few incidents at school where she said she was singled out as an Arab-American, Arkawi was driven to learn about her heritage and embrace her Syrian identity.

“I ended up going from the child where I rejected having roots of being Arab and Muslim, to this horrible incident that made me go, ‘Wow. This is who I am. I am a mix, a beautiful mix between Arab and American,’” she said.

In 2011, Arkawi was studying abroad in Doha when the Arab Spring began to unfold. “I thought it was inspiring. But at no point did I, in the early stages of the Arab Spring, did I think it was coming to Syria,” she said. She recalled visiting her grandmother in Syria in February 2011 when protests began breaking out on the streets of Damascus and President Bashar al-Assad assured citizens that the protests were all fake and a joke. For Arkawi, Assad’s words were a red flag. “That was unsettling. That was a point where I was like, ‘This is not going to go down well,’” she said.

As a child, Arkawi visited family in Syria often but in 2011 she ended up visiting Syria for the last time. She described how not being able to return had a very real impact on her, “It's really sad. You know, it's really sad that my other grandma passed away just a couple of months ago and no one can visit her, no one could help bury her in Damascus because we can't enter the country.”

The turning point where Arkawi went from reading news about Syria to actively helping the people in Syria happened when she got involved raising money for the White Helmets and had the inspiration to help resettle refugees in her home state of Arizona.

Arkawi coordinated one event in which the community held a huge holiday drive for refugees. She remembered one man showing his gratitude by saying, “You might have given me $1,000 worth of things and I'm so grateful for it. But the most expensive thing that you gave me tonight was your friendship. Because tomorrow these things can perish. These things can be destroyed and broken. But my friendship, our relationship, is something that you can never take away from me.”

What Arkawi believes will help refugees the most is for Americans to go out and meet them, and hear their stories and understand their strife because “that’s what’s beautiful about America.”

"We have such rich diversity in this nation and that is what made us so powerful," she said. "You know that somebody from a foreign land can come into this country and become a citizen and build something that helps the country become better. I mean that's a beautiful thing and why would we want to take that away from other people?"

When asked how she ensures people won’t become numb to the plight of refugees, Arkawi admitted it's difficult. “Even Syrian activists, Syrian-Americans across the nation, are growing numb. You know, it's only natural, right? Because I can't wake up every morning crying. I have to get up, I have to go to work and I have to get on with my day.” She continued, “What's really important is to have a reality check … that OK, there [are] 100 people who were killed today in a massacre in Idlib. You know there was an airstrike. You know what does that mean? How would I feel if that was my brother sister mother father that passed away? So for that awareness it drives me to continue to work.”

Arkwai said she doesn’t think it’s fair that she has the privilege of being an American without having done anything. “We have no control of where we're going to be born, or who we're born to, or who we are. And the same thing with those people in Syria, they didn't choose,” she said.

Check out the full conversation on this week’s episode of "Uncomfortable."

Download and subscribe to the "Uncomfortable" podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and ABC News podcasts.

Arkawi was interviewed as part of a series called "Uncomfortable," hosted by Amna Nawaz, that offers in-depth honest conversations with influential figures about issues dividing America.

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