Pro Wrestler Sami Zayn Aims to Save Lives In Syria

There is no professional wrestler as genre-bustingly progressive as Rami Sebe, otherwise known by his ring name, Sami Zayn. Sami Zayn is a WWE Superstar, and Quebec-born of Syrian immigrants. Instead of coming out in stereotypical Middle Eastern garb in order to provoke boos from the crowd, he skanks to the ring, an homage to his love of ska music. He also embraces his Syrian heritage. Last year, Zayn raised more than $100,000 to aid mobile clinics in his war-torn country. Currently, Zayn is involved in a campaign to raise $50,000 more for a program called Sami for Syria, to benefit SAMS, the Syrian American Medical Society. Here we speak to him about his goals for this campaign and why he became involved.

Dave Zirin: Can you talk about this new fundraising campaign, Sami for Syria?

Sami Zayn: July 12 marked a year since we launched the last fundraiser and that was basically to raise funds to launch a mobile clinic in Syria, operating on the ground to help people who were in really rural areas or had been displaced that had no access to health care. To basically fund these mobile clinics, which would deliver medical services and medications and delivering it directly to them, to people who otherwise couldn’t access health care.

That ran for a year, and I believe it’s actually still in operation and we raised around $105,000 and were able to provide 8,000 medical services, which is amazing. I’m very proud of that and I’m very happy about the generosity of all the donors that made it possible.

But now we find ourselves in a bit of a new situation, due to the escalation in violence in Daraa, which is actually where our mobile clinic was operating to begin with. It’s led to somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000 people who had to flee their homes. And a lot of them fled towards borders of Jordan and towards the Golan Heights.

But these borders are now closed to them, so they couldn’t even flee the country as refugees, so they were basically, literally stranded in the desert with no protection, in a lot of cases not even a tent, nothing. Just them in the elements and the desert. Which is just crazy. I can’t even fathom that, because I live in Florida and if I’m outside of AC for 15 minutes, I start getting irritable, so that kind of puts it in perspective.

So this latest campaign is called Sami Relief and it just launched, today, almost on the one-year anniversary of the launch of the previous mobile clinic campaign. I’s basically to address this present humanitarian crisis, this present situation, because I know a lot of times people can get worn out by the news. The conflict in Syria has been going on for around eight years now, and so I understand how people get worn out. You turn on the news and every day something new, not just in Syria, but even here in the states, so it’s very easy to get worn out, and I understand that. This particular fundraiser that we just launched today is in response to something that is happening right now, in real time. The situation is very complicated with regards to politics, but that’s stuff that I don’t want to touch, honestly. That’s not my focus. The whole focus here is a nonpolitical, nonreligious, you know, fund that will basically help displaced civilians.

D.Z.: A year ago, it was very direct. You raised money for these mobile clinics. Where do you see this money going?

S.Z.: So this time around, that is still the priority. It is mobile clinics, but the need for more than just one. I’ve partnered with SAMS, the Syrian American Medical Society, and they’re the ones doing all the legwork here, and they’ve deployed multiple mobile clinics because there’s a need for them. Mobile clinics are a very cost-effective and sustainable way and a safe way to deliver primary medical care, directly to the people in need because unfortunately, health facilities have become targets in this conflict, which is, I guess appalling to say the least, but it actually makes getting health care dangerous.

This time around, it also provides humanitarian aid, which means getting these people food to eat and clean water and baby formula and there’s actually, they’re working on getting 30,000 meals delivered to these people. I’ve gotten some pictures of it. It’s already up and running, it’s already on the ground. We’re just trying to fund it to the best of our abilities.

D.Z.: What frustrates you the most, as far as what people think about what’s happening in Syria and the reality?

S.Z.: It’s hard to say… it’s hard to get frustrated. You can’t really get mad at people for not knowing. People are dealing with their own lives, and I get that. As I said, it’s very easy to get worn out by news and things that concern you in your own life, in your own neighborhood, in your own community, or your own country. I totally understand that.

I get ignorance. What really hurts me, on a personal level, hurts my soul almost, is the callousness and the indifference to human suffering or, you know, it’s kind of this mentality of “not our problem,” or “I don’t care, it’s not happening to me.” That’s a bummer for me, personally.That extends well beyond Syria. That mentality just… I don’t think it really serves to make the world a better place, when you’re only concerned about yourself.

D.Z.: What would you say to, not just the United States, but every country that has effectively cut off Syrian refugees from entering?

S.Z.: I don’t know because, again, I don’t want to necessarily delve into the political aspects of this. The only reason I say that is because something I’ve learned, given the political climate of the last, let’s say two years in particular, you don’t get much out of saying, “Well, this is your fault,” or, “This is what’s wrong.”

I was doing that. I have a problem with a lot of things, but the whole thing about launching this fundraising campaign was, “What are you actually doing to make the situation better?”

Sami Zayn could do this interview and vocalize his displeasure with the United Nations or with the United States or with whatever country, but what does that ultimately do at the end of the day? Not much. I think it’s far more effective to actually roll up your sleeves and do something that is within your power. Because if I was sitting in on those United Nations meetings, that’s a different story. Then it’s something that maybe is within my power to voice my opinion. But right now, launching this fundraiser and lending my name or my platform to this cause is far more effective and will actually serve to do a lot more for the people that are actually suffering, you know what I mean?

D.Z.: Is there anything that you want to say to your fans, in particular about this cause and about why they should support Sami for Syria?

S.Z.: I know it seems completely unfathomable and a lot of it is unfathomable to me, it really is, because I live a very cushy life, I really do. I am very privileged, I have everything I want and more. It’s very hard for me to put myself in the shoes of these people that are going through just unimaginable horrors. You can say these words out loud: “Oh, so and so, this number of civilians have been killed. This number of civilians have been displaced.” And while that’s awful, you can’t truly fathom the horror of what those words mean. So it’s very hard for me to just say, “Hey, this is the suffering that’s going on,” because ultimately it’s very hard for people to truly empathize or to truly put themselves in those shoes. I just think as our capacity as human beings, we’re limited to truly understand that suffering, unless we’ve experienced it ourselves. I guess my message would really just be, if you’re grateful that this isn’t happening to you and you’re in a position to help… well, now there’s this fund that is a direct line where your money, your donation, however big, however small, is a direct way to help people who are in a really bad situation that I would imagine you never want to find yourself in.

So, to me, it’s as simple as that. If you think this is a horrible situation, which I think almost, universally, everyone can agree that this is awful that civilians of Syria have to deal with this, and if you ask, I’m sure nine out of 10 people, if asked, “Hey, don’t you wish you could help?” I’m sure people would say, “Yes!”

This is a direct way for you to help that’s been set up for you. Not only by me and this fundraising campaign, but by SAMS who’s doing all the legwork and grunt work, of actually making this stuff happen. We’ve set up a very easy and very direct way for anybody to help. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but even $10, $20, whatever amount of money, that could be the difference between paying for somebody’s diabetes medication or not. So ultimately, it’s based on, if I could spread the message of empathy and understanding and doing good for others, I mean that’s ultimately the message behind it.

The more practical message is $20 can really help save somebody’s life. I really wish I could get everybody to chip in a little bit, but ultimately, people will do what they do and I was astounded by the generosity of people, last time around, over the course of the last year, so I really hope that we can raise some funds this time around. Again, it’s an urgent situation. It’s happening in real time and so I really hope we can do our part to help.

D.Z.: Last question. Going back a year, what was the spark of inspiration that made you feel that you had to do something?

S.Z.: I think it was just the point in my life that I reached where I realized, I had to look myself in the mirror and take some accountability. I almost feel like I was more a part of a problem than a solution. It’s sort of this perpetual thing that keeps spinning, of people on one side of the fence versus people on the other side of the fence, and there’s this back and forth, dialogue and just nothing gets done. Everybody’s yelling and nobody’s actually doing anything.

And I felt like I had all these opinions and I had all these good intentions, but then I really had to look myself in the mirror and say, “You talk a big game, but what are you actually doing?”

I just kind of felt like a hypocrite and I realized I do have the means to help because of this platform that I’ve been afforded by being WWE Superstar or being on TV every Monday night. I realized I had a position to actually facilitate some change and I wasn’t really, while my intentions were good, I wasn’t really doing anything.

I had to look myself in the mirror and confront my own hypocrisy and face that head-on, and that was really what sparked it. The intention to help people or the belief that the Syrian people suffering is awful and that I wish I could alleviate it, that’s been there for years. But then I think I just came to a point in my life where I realized, I’m not really doing anything about it and it’s time to put up or shut up. That’s what really did it.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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