EXCLUSIVE: WWE Superstar Sami Zayn talks charity initiative ‘Sami for Syria’
As the crisis in Syria rages through its sixth year, and with conversations of Syria veering more political than humanitarian, it can be easy for the global community to forget about the people on the ground, unable to receive the help they need.
WWE Superstar Sami Zayn, himself of Syrian decent, has launched ‘Sami for Syria’, turning focus towards those in need of aid. Partnering with SAMS (Syrian American Medial Society), the initiative aims to put a mobile clinic on the ground in Syria that will bring healthcare to those who otherwise would have no access.
“A lot of people are living in camps, a lot of people are living displaced, a lot of people are living in rural areas and have no access to transportation,” Zayn told me when we sat down to discuss the matter in Brooklyn, New York. “With a mobile clinic we can directly bring medical help to their doorstep.”
Zayn is one of the most prominent Arabs in global pop culture. WWE has a worldwide social media reach of reportedly 810 million followers, and a huge TV audience for its weekly programs WWE Raw and Smackdown Live, including on MBC Action. Sami—‘Zayn’ written in Arabic firmly emblazoned on his ring attire—is likely the only Syrian that many regularly see on a western TV program.
“For me, it’s something that’s been on my mind. It’s obviously a subject that’s very personal to me, being Syrian. I’m a Canadian-born Syrian, my parents are from Syria, my family lives in Syria—a lot of them have been displaced. I visited the country when I was younger. For the longest time, I wanted to figure out a way to help.”
The mobile clinic will be able to provide care for a wide variety of issues, including those people might not focus on, such as mental health.
“There will be a general practitioner, a doctor who is able to disperse various medications, a nurse, a midwife, psycho-social care for people dealing with the mental health issues that I don’t think a lot of people think about,” says Zayn.
“When you think about Syria and you think about the conflict in Syria, a lot of people think about the injuries and the medical emergencies. But a lot of people don’t think that the people who deal with these injuries, or the people that are surrounded by these injuries have to deal with mental trauma that lasts, sometimes, a lifetime. Post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety… Sadly for a lot of these kids in Syria, this is all they’ve known, so a lot of these mental health issues are prevalent in children. I’m very happy that our mobile clinic will do something to help them as well.”
A personal connection
Zayn was last able to visit Syria in the late 1990s.
“I was maybe 13 or 14 years old. The last time I was there I was actually kind of bummed out because my mother took me there for the whole summer which meant I was missing a whole summer of WWE, and that’s all I cared about at that time. It’s pretty crazy to look at what Homs was, the town I was visiting and where my family is from, and to see pictures of what Homs looks like now and it’s—I don’t know, it just blows my mind.”
Zayn has found success in his career as a professional wrestler based on his ability to connect with the crowd and get them to believe in him—to instill empathy in thousands watching. In a career dedicated to empathy, he hopes to extend that to the Syrian people he represents.
“It’s so tragic and so sad. I know it’s hard for a lot of people who don’t have that association with Syria to really empathize. It’s so hard, if you are living in the [United] States, to imagine what it would be like to them. You can’t imagine it. People struggle to make that emotional connection, which is why, I feel like, if I can be that middle ground for them, if I can be a Syrian that they can relate to, and they can see that, well…
“What I think about a lot is that I’m here living my dream as a WWE wrestler. It’s something I always wanted to do. I honestly think about this all the time now—if my parents hadn’t left Syria, maybe I wouldn’t be a WWE Superstar. Maybe I’d be the one that you see on the news. Maybe that’d be my kid in the rubble, and maybe that’d be me floating on a little raft in the Mediterranean.
“It could very easily be me, and that’s why it’s such a personal connection to me, you know? If I can help people who don’t have a connection to Syria make a connection to Syria as a Syrian person, then I’m happy to do that,” says Zayn.
Since Sami for Syria began in mid-July, it has already surpassed its initial fundraising goal.
“When I first set the goal, which was for six months worth of funding, the minimum we needed just to launch the clinic was about $48,000. That seemed like a big number, and I was a little worried about it to be honest, but now we’ve hit that number and now we’ve smashed that number, and we’re trying to exceed that number.”
In the week leading up to WWE’s yearly mega-event SummerSlam, Zayn started a dollar-for-dollar matching campaign for up to $10,000. With his addition, the total is now approaching $70,000, “which is awesome,” says Zayn.
“I’ve been personally shocked by a lot of the people, and a lot of my WWE Superstar co-workers, who retweeted and contributed financially. It’s been really heartwarming for me to see.”
Though the initial goal is reached, that does not mean that the campaign is over.
“Ultimately, the more money we raise, the more people we’ll be able to help. Whether that means getting the clinic to run in more camps, or in more villages, or reach more people, or run an extra day a week, or to be funded for longer, or if it means we raise enough money for a second mobile clinic, it all goes to helping people. I’m very excited about that. “
Sami for Syria has, to date, been social media driven, with our conversation one of the first times he’s reached out to traditional media to discuss it. Zayn is eager to include the Middle East in his initiative to help the Syrian people.
“To my Arab brothers and sisters, we have to help each other. This is a social media campaign predominantly, but I feel like his is a time when the Arab people really need to come together, because we’re one. We really need to help each other out.”
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