“This is Genocide, Broadcast in Real Time”: An Interview with the Founders of Save the Syrian Children

Hippo Reads Staff

For a long time, Tamar and Phil Koosed felt removed from the atrocities in Syria. They knew what was going on, but it just wasn’t “their cause.” And then they started seeing photos of children being murdered.

As parents, the images were almost more than they could take—but it led them to act. Today, their nonprofit, Save the Syrian Children, has raised over $100,000 to send lifesaving medical supplies through a safe corridor to 28 hospitals in Idlib and Aleppo. Lives are being saved as we speak, but there is a constant need for more help. Our editor-in-chief sat down with Phil and Tamar to hear more about the cause.

TORI TELFER: Tell me about the origins of Save the Syrian Children. What inspired you to create this?

PHIL KOOSED: It started with feelings of numbness and detachment. For a while, we were disconnected from the atrocities in Syria. We were aware of them and had donated to a few charities, but that was it. We were overloaded with the daily news and images coming from this impossibly far away place and accepted that this was just out of our control. Syria was not “our cause.”

Then, Tamar’s friends who work in international development sent us some horrible pictures and videos from the war. We dug deeper and watched innocent children get bombed, gassed, and murdered. The pain was too much too bear and almost made us shut down again. But we didn’t and the drumbeat grew louder and louder. There was no turning away from what we had seen. This is genocide. Unfolding before our eyes. Broadcast in real-time. And we are bearing witness to it.

As Jews, we are very connected to what is happening in Syria. Phil’s maternal grandmother, Mary, and grandfather, Isaac, of blessed memory, survived the Holocaust, but their entire families perished in the hands of the Nazis. We heard their stories and cried over those of so many others and said “never again” countless times. But where were we over the last six years when Syrian children were being slaughtered? Well, this was our moment of truth—we could either act in accordance with our stated values or shrink from that responsibility. We chose to act.

What sort of response have you had since you launched?

The response has been overwhelming. In less than a few weeks we have raised over $120,000. This has allowed us to begin putting together a wish list with doctors on the ground for a second container. Our incredible friend Sue Chen, who owns NOVA, a medical equipment company, is also getting one entire container of wheelchairs and crutches so we can ship these needed goods to Idlib and Aleppo. Many other companies and organizations have come forward to explore ways to collaborate. The fundamental truth is that when people are informed of the atrocities unfolding, they care deeply, and are desperate to help. This experience has invigorated our belief in the inherent goodness of people. People who are part of this movement see those in Syria as fellow humans. They see the virtue in standing up to evil and stopping genocide.

One of the things that has really resonated with people is the pragmatism and efficiency of this effort. We have leveraged decades of private sector experience to deliver humanitarian aid in a way that is better, more effective, and incomparably efficient. The entire operation is being run with 0% overhead and we are going factory-direct to source medical supplies in China at roughly 50-60% below the price paid by most NGOs. This has allowed us to deliver badly needed, lifesaving medical supplies at the lowest cost possible to the people who need them most. People want to know that their contributions matter. There’s no question that every dollar people contribute to this effort will save lives.

It’s just mind-blowing to me that you’ve been able to establish a safe corridor in such a war-torn area. Can you tell me more about that? What was the process, what does the corridor look like, how does it function?

We each have somewhat unique professional backgrounds that made this possible. Tamar comes from the world of international development, so she has connections on the ground and the ability to determine what works and what doesn’t very quickly. My professional background is in the setup of global supply chains for large companies. So we combined our skill sets and applied them to Save the Syrian Children.

We were able to source supplies from eleven factories in China at very low costs. From there, the goods were transported via container through the Suez Canal to the Port of Mersin in Turkey. This is a very popular shipping route. The Turkish government agreed to allow our supplies pass through duty free due to their humanitarian nature. From the Port of Mersin the goods traveled to the Reyhanli border crossing. From there, the trucks traveled a bit over 50 kilometers through rebel-controlled territory to our distribution center. The Free Syrian Army is of course onboard to allow humanitarian donations to pass through from Turkey into Syria. We rely heavily on the eyes and ears we have on the ground to tell us when is a good time to transport the goods so they arrive safely and avoid bombings.

It took us eight months to bring this whole supply chain to life; it was the main focus of our work. We spent a lot of time speaking to doctors and organizations like the White Helmets on the Syrian side as well as larger aid organizations on the Turkish side. These partners have the real knowledge base for this whole effort and were standing by to help if we needed it while our goods were crossing. The goods got through and reached the 28 hospitals as we had intended.

Do you know anything more about the 28 makeshift hospitals where you’re delivering your supplies? 

We know a lot about these hospitals. We know the doctors, the areas they service, the equipment and supply needs. The doctors who have helped us put this whole thing together are really miracle workers. They are under constant bombardment and lacking the most basic of supplies. But every single day, they save lives that would otherwise be lost. When working on this project, we know that our biggest risk is that these goods get bombed once they arrive at the hospitals, which have been deliberately bombed throughout this war. So we don’t disclose their locations for fear of them being targeted. We’ve gotten to know these doctors personally. They are the bravest souls you will ever meet. Some are Syrians who stayed behind, risking their own lives. Others have left great lives in Europe, giving up everything they have to save as many lives as they can. It’s humbling and inspiring to know that people like that exist. They are heroes and extraordinary human beings.

What is it about these medical supplies that makes them so necessary? Can you tell me why you chose these particular supplies? 

To understand the choice of supplies, you first have to understand the nature of the conflict itself. Bombing in both Idlib and Aleppo has been relentless. The bomb of choice for both the Syrian regime and the Russians is a barrel bomb. Barrel bombs are imprecise, dropped indiscriminately from helicopters and unable to hit specific targets. They are designed to maximize destruction in civilian areas. Barrel bombs are typically oil drums filled with more than 2000 pounds of explosives and packed with shards of scrap metal. This is a tool of chaos and misery that shreds through human flesh. If you were to design a weapon to terrorize and devastate innocent civilians, you would design a barrel bomb. The results are horrific. When dropped, dozens to hundreds of people are torn apart upon impact, creating a need to immediately stop the bleeding of a large number of people.

So we sourced thousands of cat tourniquets and highly absorbent Israeli bandages to stop hemorrhaging and treat patients suffering from major blood loss. We brought in 800,000 pieces of gauze for this same purpose. We’re talking about the most basic of supplies just to keep children alive—this is the stuff they need and don’t have enough of. If doctors can stop the bleeding, the next leading cause of death is infection. So we included aid to address that too. For example, we sent 150,000 surgical blades because our doctors on the ground were re-using surgical blades because they had no choice. These inexpensive materials can be the difference between a child dying in Syria or surviving the war to live a long life.

What is it about your particular backgrounds that made you able to undertake and execute such an ambitious project?

PHIL KOOSED: I run a company that develops and manages global supply chain for a number of Fortune 500 companies. Sourcing product in a cost-effective manner and setting up the systems for its efficient distribution is my professional expertise.

TAMAR KOOSED: I run an international development firm that helps NGOs, governments, and large companies assess the impact of their aid programs. We assess aid programs and figure out how to make them more efficient and effective. Combining the unique skill sets that Phil and I have developed over the years with the assistance of so many incredible, selfless individuals has made something possible that we couldn’t have dreamed of 8 months ago.

I know you two are parents yourself. Can you talk a little bit about how your kids affected your connection to the cause? 

PHIL KOOSED: Like any parent, words cannot describe the profound depth of love that we have for our children. That love was the inspiration for all of this. We started seeing our own children’s faces in the wounded and dying children of Syria. The pain was too much. We are very aware that the randomness of fate made it so that our children were born here and not in Syria. That’s it. Just pure, blind luck that separates them from abject horror. We felt obligated to help the unlucky ones. And we have found that there are so many others out there who share that same sense of obligation.

What would you say to Americans who feel helpless, like there’s nothing they can do for a situation that’s so far away?

Start. Just start with the first step. It never ceases to amaze me how a small action can lead to incredible results. We had a donor from Tamar’s graduate school program contribute $100. He sent a letter saying he wished he could give more because he cares so deeply about this cause. He said he would share the project with others. And he did. He shared with some people who shared with some people. Today, we can directly attribute over $7,000 in donations to his post on social media. That may not sound like a lot, but it is. His one small act will allow us to buy thousands of hemorrhage bandages that will directly save the lives of dozens of children. The guy sent out a heartfelt message online to his network. That one act will save the lives of dozens of children and we are eternally grateful for that. When we started with this journey eight months ago, we could have never foreseen we would end up here. All we needed to do was take that first step. We need a ton of help, so if someone wants to take that first step with us, we would be honored. Feel free to reach out.

Note from Hippo: Please consider donating to Save the Syrian Children (and spreading the word on social media). Every dollar donated goes directly to fund the manufacturing and delivery of life-saving medical supplies for children in the region. Donate here

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.