An Oklahoma congressman's mission of mercy
A civil war half a world away brought an Oklahoma politician face-to-face with human tragedy. It was a trip that Congressman Steve Russell said changed his beliefs about Syrian refugees, but it was an act he did while in Syria that made his trip more than just a fact-finding tour.
The story starts long before Russell flew to refugee camps in Turkey. It even begins long before Russell cast the vote that created a veto-proof majority on a bill to essentially stop the flow of Syrian refugees into the United States.
This story starts with a bomb.
Ruwaida is a mother of 12 children who lived in the northern Syrian town of Idlib. Her home was hit by a Russian bomb. She remembers pulling her youngest daughter, Kauthar, out of the rubble. The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital in Turkey. The doctors said she had been in a coma for a month.
She had no clues as to what happened to her children. Finally word came to her that there was a baby girl, not yet two-years-old, who was in a nearby hospital. No one had claimed the little girl.
Ruwaida said as soon as she walked in, she heard her daughter crying. The doctors brought her a little girl, wrapped in bandages. Through the burns, she could see the expressions of her lost daughter. The doctors asked how she could be certain it was her child. "Of course I know my daughter," Ruwaida told Fox 25 through a translator, "I can sense when I see my daughter."
Celebration over the reunion was short lived. The doctors said the burns were too bad. Kauthar's case was hopeless. The bomb had burnt her eyelids off. Kauthar could not even close her eyes to sleep. If, by some miracle, she lived she would never be able to live a normal life.
"I wish I was dead over this happening to my daughter," Ruwaida remembers thinking at the time.
She posted about her daughter's condition on Facebook and was contacted by the Syrian Institute for Progress, which is based in California.
"It is like the most injured," said Chairwoman Susan Baaj of the group's work to help victims of Syria's civil war, "But everybody needs help."
Baaj said the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas had volunteered to help Kauthar. They had the technology that could save her life. Still, hope remained out of reach. Turkey would not let the family leave the country.
"The visa issue is very difficult, because no documentation," Baaj said, "Because when the barrel bomb hits everything gets burned."
Every day they went to the airport hoping they could leave Turkey and come to the United States, but every day they were told no.
"I was in compete despair," Ruwaida said, "I was scared; I lost hope."
At the same time the airport denials were happening, Congressman Russell was visiting Turkish refugee camps. It was part of his fact-finding tour to learn about the screening process for refugees. He heard about Kauthar's situation and knew he had to help.
"On our word we asked the Turkish government to accommodate her travel, the next morning that little girl and that family was on an airplane," Russell said.
Russell knew the politics of Syrian refugees. He had initially planned to vote against the bill that would stop refugee replacement, but changed his vote on the promise it wouldn't be the last time the issue was discussed and that he would have a seat at the table to discuss the government's policy towards refugees. The trip was part of that promise being fulfilled.
"We have to be a nation that opens its doors to the greatest in need in vulnerability," Russell said, "Maybe we haven't been able to help everybody, but we helped one family while we were there. That's an example; this...girl is not a threat to the national security of the United States."
Kauthar is just one of the millions of children injured in the war in Syria. The Syrian Institute for Progress says the organization is helping as many as they can, but the need is great.
Ruwaida does not want to stay in the United States. Her home and her family is in Syria. She is grateful for the life-saving treatment her daughter is receiving, but she is eager to go home and find out what's left of her family. She is praying for an end to the war so that her daughter, who is alive thanks to the kindness of strangers, is able to live in peace.
Translation provided by Susan Baaj and Mukarram AbuAlouf.