International

From Houston AC repairman to Syrian border camp mayor

A profile of Yakzan Shishakly -- a US-based businessman turned aid worker on the Syrian border

The Atmeh camp on April 18, 2013, in Darkoush, Syria.
Esa Alexander/Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images

In September of 2012, when Yakzan Shishakly traveled to the Syria-Turkey border to distribute aid to refugees fleeing Syria's violent regime, he happened on hundreds of men, women and children sleeping among olive trees on the Syrian side of the frontier. Tauntingly close to Turkey, yet refused entry, and with the clashes in their homeland at their backs, they had taken refuge right there, under the silvery leaves of a hilltop grove. They had already been there a month, having brought what they could carry with them, and aside from a few makeshift tents, they were living in the open.

"There shouldn't be Syrians living this way," Yakzan thought. As a fellow Syrian, he wanted to help. What would happen next, there among the olive trees, would — like the unraveling of Syria itself — play out in ways no one, least of all Yakzan, could have foreseen.

Unlike refugees who are entitled to certain legal protections, IDPs fall into a no-man's land in the world of international aid.

Before the Syrian uprising, Yakzan's life had finally hit his stride. After 14 years in the U.S., he had found his footing. The grandson of one of the country’s first presidents, he had a name that was instantly recognizable to any Syrian. And if his lineage sometimes afforded him favor, it also meant that forces loyal to Hafez al-Assad, Syria's president from 1971 to 2000, watched his family vigilantly, fearing their historical legacy could threaten the strongman's grip on the country. But the rules were clear: Stay away from politics, don't open your mouth, and you'll be fine. Both Yakzan's father and Yakzan himself did just that.

Yakzan's father chose to keep his family in Syria despite the Assad family's repressive rule. He used to tell his children, "If we leave the country, for those people, who is going to stay?"

And the Shishaklys lived well, in the toniest of neighborhoods: Abu Ramaneh, in Damascus. As a teenager, Yakzan used to love strolling through its tree-lined streets well past midnight — Damascus is nocturnal, as many Middle Eastern cities are — just to drink peach ice tea from his favorite tea stand.

Yakzan had relatives in the United States, so he emigrated to Texas in 1997, at the age of 19. Despite his family's prominent past, the unassuming  Yakzan was unburdered by his name and expectations. He waited tables at T.G.I. Friday's in Houston's Town & Country Mall. The money he earned helped pay for English classes, and he eventually enrolled in a local community college, earning a degree in air-conditioning installation and repair, a sensible choice in a place as hot as Houston. 

Eventually, Yakzan started his own business, assembling a fleet of seven trucks and vans emblazoned with his "US Refrigeration" decal and the motto "Live Above the Weather." They could be seen parked outside homes in manicured neighborhoods like Tanglewood, where Yakzan installed wine cellars and other special cooling systems for some of the city's richer residents.

Houston has a Syrian American population sizable enough for an active community and cultural center. For Yakzan, the social life in this sprawling American city wasn't bad, even if it couldn’t match the hypersociability of  Damascus, which is built to human scale. With a life filled with work, family and friends and his beloved black Dodge Charger, he had settled into life in Houston. And owning his own business allowed him the freedom to visit his native Syria whenever he wanted.

Yakzan Shishakly
Yakzan Shishakly
Alia Malek

But then the Syrian revolution erupted in March 2011 and the mental separation he had developed between the two places evaporated — gone in an instant. Heartsick over the violence and the plight of his people, Yakzan helped organize weekly protests in Houston against the brutal crackdown on civilians carried out under Bashar al-Assad, Hafez's son. From there, he joined efforts to organize Syrian-Americans across the United States. As more and more Syrians left and a humanitarian crisis developed, he began raising money among the Syrian-American diaspora, channeling funds to nongovernment organizations working in relief.

Eventually, exasperated with the world's indifferent response and eager to do more, Yakzan journeyed to the Turkish border. It was there, while looking across to the Syrian side, that he first saw the families among the olive trees. He snuck across the border to Syria to speak to them.

Yakzan asked what they needed. Tents and water tanks, they said, so he crossed back into Turkey, purchased the supplies with his own money, then stole across the border into Syria again to deliver them. For two weeks, Yakzan did what he could for them, then returned to Texas. By then he had decided to start an organization to aid the IDPs, or internally displaced persons. 

IDPs are particularly vulnerable because they are still in their own country and under the regime's jurisdiction. So, unlike refugees, the people Yakzan had met were in a no-man's land in terms of international aid. 

Back in Houston, Yakzan worked with other Syrian-Americans to register and organize a foundation, which he named Maram after a Syrian refugee girl he had met at a rehab center in Turkey. She had been paralyzed when a shell fragment had struck her. Her tenacity — she tried repeatedly to move her legs to no avail — and her unwavering hope that she would eventually walk again inspired him.

The next step was to find a responsible liaison at the Syria-Turkey border to manage Maram's activities on the ground. So in October 2012, Yakzan booked a flight to Turkey to find such a person and told family and friends in Texas, "I'll be back in two weeks."

Five months later, he still had not returned.

By June, Olive Tree had grown into a sprawling camp of 25,000 people living in 4,000 tents on a few square miles on the Syria-Turkey border.

Once he arrived in Turkey, one thing led to another and soon he was working out of office space borrowed from another NGO, located in the small Turkish border town of Reyhanli, now a hub of activity with the rush of IDPs and refugees. He spent his days working with other groups that did the same kind of work, coordinating supplies sent in from donors around the world.

Tents, tins of food, medicine, portable bathrooms, school supplies — they all poured in and were channeled to the ever-swelling masses of Syrian IDPs. And the camp was getting bigger day by day. People fleeing some of the Syria's most besieged cities — Idlib, Homs, Hama, Aleppo — poured in, and Yazkan struggled to meet their needs.

By December, the several hundred IDPs in the camp had become several thousand. Winter had brought with it new needs. What was adequate shelter in summer and fall would fail them in the cold; better tents and now blankets, too, had to be acquired and distributed. The camp city also needed more bathrooms and showers, a kitchen, a school and a clinic.

Yakzan still intended to return to Texas, but couldn’t quite yet. More people just kept coming.

"You think you can see people in need, people who are coming to you specifically because you are their only hope, and leave?" he asks. 

I can't easily adjust from the camp to so-called normal life. Refugees are lost because they are refugees; I'm lost because I'm helping them.

Meanwhile, in Houston, without Yakzan's leadership, his air-conditioning business was beginning to fail. Yakzan had slipped into the role of director of the makeshift camp. It became known as the Olive Tree Camp, and administrative duties were handled through Maram. 

Yakzan was there every day. As soon as he would arrive, early in the morning, from Reyhanli, Yakzan — impossible to miss at 6 feet 4 inches — would be swarmed by people who wanted something: medicine, a new tent, more food, resolution of a dispute among the factions that were arising, most often along geographical lines, but sometimes within families.

"Ya, mokhtar! (Hey, Mayor!)," they would call out to him before launching into their requests or complaints. Every day, he would stay till the last one had been heard.

Fellow Syrian-American Lina Sergie Attar was a witness to Yakzan's daily walks through the camp. A co-founder and president of the Chicago-based Karam Foundation, which this summer ran a camp for children at Olive Tree, she says, "That was a very powerful moment to witness. Inside the camp he was both a leader and an equal."

If in Texas Yakzan’s friends and family were counting the days since he had left, in Turkey, entire days, weeks and months passed in a haze. He woke before dawn, spent the day at the camp, ate if he remembered, slept in his clothes and muddy shoes, then started all over again the next day.

Almost five months went by before Yakzan finally returned to Houston, in February 2013, to attend fund-raisers for MARAM. He was there just a few days but in that time bought the winter clothes and work boots he had needed for months. He had been so busy, in fact, that he had not stopped long enough to discover that there was a mall near Reyhanli where he could have bought everything he needed.

By June, Olive Tree had grown into a sprawling encampment of 25,000 people living in 4,000 tents over a few square miles.

Yakzan's AC business was now defunct. He had rented an apartment in Reyhanli and a large office for Maram. He had hired five people. Yet he still hadn't realized that the Olive Tree life was now his life. 

A year after his first visit, he sometimes wonders out loud whether he should actually move to the border, as if he hasn't already. This can't help but elicit a smile from those who know that Yakzan's name — more poetic than it is common — is Arabic for "he who is awake or aware."

Keeping the Olive Tree camp functioning now costs about $100,000 a month.

But Yakzan knows that what started out as an ad hoc response to an emergency situation now requires a very different approach. With the war in Syria only escalating, and the potential for U.S. strikes, Maram needs a long-term strategy. Even as Yakzan and his colleagues dream of seeing the refugees return to their homes in Syria, they know that they must raise more money now, enough to last them through another winter and beyond.

Maram has survived largely on the basis of donations from Syrians in the United States, particularly Texas, but nearly all the organization's funds have been spent. Keeping Olive Tree functioning now costs about $100,000 a month. That includes the kitchen, tents, water, medicine, a school, a women's center and Maram staff salaries — excluding one for Yakzan, who has never been on the payroll. He has spent considerable time on the road recently, lobbying for support from governments, NGOs and wealthy individuals. But as of yet, Maram hasn't received any institutional or government funding. 

It is Yakzan's dream that Olive Tree will become self-reliant and, indeed, some of the refugees have begun small initiatives like selling goods, building clay ovens and baking bread to sell. Even small children wander around the camp with boxes fashioned into cigarette trays, selling not only smokes but lighters, chocolate and gum. But Yakzan is thinking about ways to make real money for the camp. Recently, he investigated the possibility of creating a dairy factory in the neighboring Syrian village of Atmeh.

For now, the fund-raising continues. In August, he returned to Texas for a charity dinner and "Ramadodgeball" tournament, an all-night event during the Islamic religious month of Ramadan. It brought out 300 people and raised $4,000.

In Houston, a team of two Syrian-Americans and an Egyptian-American — who have full-time jobs as a nutritionist, hospital marketer and lawyer — runs many of Maram's activities from a one-room office with only a desk, four chairs and a mailing address. The August fund-raising trip was the first time Yakzan was able to spend several days at home again in months.

"I can't easily adjust from the camp to so-called normal life," he says. "I don’t know what's my old or new life." Laughing, he adds, "Refugees are lost because they are refugees; I'm lost because I'm helping them."

Nadine Abdallah, a lawyer who volunteers her time for Maram, says that on the surface Yakzan seems like the same person she knew before. "But how can you be unchanged?" she asks. "That's a lot of trauma and despair he's seeing."

His visit to Houston coincides with the last days of Ramadan. His widowed father, who moved to Houston last year at the age of 80, now lives in the condo that Yakzan ostensibly still shares with his brother Omar. Yakzan's older brother, Adib, is a well-known dissident who is the Syrian National Council's representative to the countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf. Adib's and Yakzan's activities have made them personae non gratae with the Syrian regime and, fearing that their father might be made to bear the consequences, they begged him to leave.

 

After an iftar, or breaking of the fast, with a generous spread featuring Syrian delicacies, Yakzan — as he does in Turkey — is stealing a few hours of sleep on the living room sofa. When he wakes, before he even sits up, he answers e-mails and messages from Syria, Turkey and wherever else help is being offered.

 

When you help, you make a difference in a life, that feeling is more than enough to empower you to keep working. I love when I put a smile on children's faces.

Earlier this month, Yakzan resigned as camp director. Maram still runs Olive Tree, but Yakzan wanted the camp to be self-governing and the leadership to be composed of the citizens of Olive Tree. It was a decision that did not go over well with everyone, but was overshadowed by the news of possible U.S. military intervention. Meanwhile, Yakzan is looking ahead to his next challenge. There are new needs in this border area of Syria: building orphanages for the children of parents who have died in the clashes, expanding the activities begun at the summer camp with Karam, the Chicago-based foundation, and planning for the rebuilding of Syria.

With potential American air strikes and what some believe is an imminent end of the regime, many organizations are now on the ground on both sides of the border, vying for the power that might be up for grabs. These groups have political goals, even in their humanitarian work, says Yakzan.

"Each one wants to push their agenda — Islamists, secularists, whatever. Their money is tied to those goals," he says. "No one is giving money just because they're human."

Despite his experiences and his prominent family, Yakzan insists he is not interested in politics. He has found fulfillment in humanitarian work. "When you help, you make a difference in a life," he says. "That feeling is more than enough to empower you to keep working. I love when I put a smile on children’s faces."

Raghad, Maram's office manager and first employee, watched Yakzan working hard for the IDPs. Coming from what she characterized a relatively privileged background, it impressed her that Yakzan often stayed out in the cold and rain without complaint for hours, focused on problem solving and unconcerned about his own food or comfort.

"You sense that he has been looking for something to believe in and fight for," she says.

It's been the longest year in Yakzan's life, he says, "but I feel like it was in this year that I was born."

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