Helping Hands

Syrian students aim to start local chapter of medical relief organization.

Though the war in Syria may seem far away for many living in the greater Charlotte area, for Adam Morin and Mohammed Willis it hits close to home. Both juniors at Davidson College, and both of Syrian heritage, they are fierce advocates for Syrian relief efforts on campus and in the greater community. This year they aim to start a Carolinas chapter of the Syrian American Medical Relief Society (SAMS) to connect the “far away” crisis and victims with more people who can help.

A non-political, non-religious 501(c)3 organization, SAMS helps millions of Syrians and Syrian refugees each year. Though early in the chapter process, already Morin and Willis have raised more than $10,000 in donations from campus and community members, and garnered the support of more than a dozen area physicians. They hope to recruit at least 10 more in the coming months.

“As medical professionals, we took an oath to help those in need, those who are suffering, and as Syrians, our obligation is to assist people in the best way possible, regardless of our political views,” says Dr. Firas Kassaab, a rheumatologist with Carolinas Healthcare System. He has worked with SAMS in the past as a medical conference speaker, and has been instrumental in recruiting area medical professionals to support the local chapter Morin and Willis aim to start.

Morin, a pre-med student, traveled to Jordan last summer on a medical mission trip with SAMS—a mission Willis helped fundraise for—and there he saw firsthand the “disheartening medical conditions” at the camp to which he was assigned. He also saw firsthand the work of incredible volunteers and the impact SAMS is having.

“The people need ongoing medical help—the kind SAMS can provide,” Morin says.

According to SAMS Treasurer Dr. Mohamad Sekkarie, in the first nine months of 2016, members of the organization treated about 2.7 million Syrians in Syria, Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, and Jordan—providing everything from major surgeries and childbirth assistance to primary, pediatric, dental, and psychosocial care. The cost per patient averages about $9.

In addition to the physicians who assist on medical mission trips and the medical supplies it provides, SAMS also focuses a lot of its efforts on advocacy and education. Members have met with Congress and U.N. organizations to report on the crisis in Syria, and others have published reports in prestigious medical journals on such topics as the practice of war-time medicine.

The projected budget for 2016 is $30 million, and 96 percent of the organization’s expenses are for relief and programs, with just 3 percent for fundraising and 1 percent for management. That means that nearly all of the funds raised go directly to helping people.

Willis lives in Richmond, but has family in Syria, including five half-siblings ranging in age from 3 to 16, whom he helps support financially and worries about constantly.

With Willis’ family ties and Morin’s hands-on experience, the two knew they wanted to support the organization and decided that starting a new chapter was the best way to do so.

“I hate the term ‘activism,’” Willis says. “It carries this negative connotation and conjures images of a bunch of students marching around waving posters, but not having any real impact.”

Conscious of the distinction between passive activism and real impact, Willis and Morin remain focused and realistic in their endeavors, identifying specific ways to alleviate suffering. And right now they believe that raising money and starting a local SAMS chapter will yield real results.

“Starting a chapter here is something that I had in mind in the past, but didn’t have the time to do,” Dr. Kassaab says. “I’m glad there are energetic, excited students working on it and I will continue to support them in their efforts.”

Morin and Willis officially launched their initiative to start a SAMS chapter of the Carolinas on Dec. 3 at Davidson College. They hosted a dinner and silent art auction, featuring traditional Syrian dishes and art by Syrian artists, to raise money and awareness of SAMS’ impact and to draw interest from potential volunteers. More than 100 people attended the event, including physicians, members of religious groups, resettlement agency employees, and Davidson students and staff. Donations and art auction proceeds exceeded $10,000, all of which went to SAMS.

The event was sponsored by the U.S. State Department and featured speakers including Charlotte Refugee Resettlement Agency consultant Alia Nassri, a Syrian refugee family recently resettled in Charlotte, SAMS Treasurer Dr. Sekkarie, and Morin and Willis.

Ms. Nassri offered insight into the refugee process before introducing the refugee family. There are 4.8 million registered refugees, mostly in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, she said, and the process to get resettled can take years. The need for refugee assistance is huge, she said. She then translated for the family members who spoke in Arabic about their grueling experience over the last three years.

“After hearing from the speakers, many people said it made the war seem real to them,” Willis says, and that was the ultimate goal: to humanize refugees and incite real, impactful activism by giving people tangible needs and practical ways they could help.

More Information

Want to support SAMS? Visit the website,, or donate online at

Photos by Eric Pound.