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From Middle East Tours to Medical Missions

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Thirty years ago, Rita Zawaideh (BA, History, 1975) left the Middle East because she was haunted by tragedies she’d witnessed there. Now she keeps going back for the same reason.

Zawaideh, owner of Caravan-Serai Tours in Seattle, has spent the past several years organizing medical missions to the Middle East to help Syrian refugees. Last year she created a children’s center for young refugees, with additional centers in the works.

Rita Zawaideh

Rita Zawaideh receives a certificate from the head of a Syrian clinic in recognition of her group's work there.  Media credit: Samia Moslimany

“There are over a million Syrian refugees in Jordan, 1.3 million in Lebanon, 1.5 million in Turkey,” says Zawaideh. “People don’t realize how big a humanitarian crisis this is. It’s huge.”

Zawaideh was born in Jordan but raised in Seattle. She joined the UW’s Arab Student Association while still in high school, then continued with the group while studying history at the University. After graduating she moved to Syria, where she led tours and prepared guidebooks for American visitors.  But after a decade abroad, the havoc of Syria’s protracted civil war took its toll. She found herself frightened to leave home after witnessing dozens of people killed during an attack in a major shopping market. “I’d seen too much death and destruction,” she says. “I decided it was time to leave Syria.”

Back in Seattle, Zawaideh parlayed her extensive knowledge of the Middle East into a thriving travel agency. Early on, her focus was securing flights and hotels for clients traveling to the Middle East. By the time the Internet made ticketing services obsolete, she had added tours, tapping the many contacts she’d made during her decade in Syria. Conde Nast recognized her company as one of the top tour operators in the Middle East for more than a dozen years.

While Zawaideh’s tours celebrated Arab culture, she wanted to do more. During the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, she organized an Arab Film Festival, bringing in directors from all over the Middle East. Next she foundedSalaam Cultural Museum (SCM), a nonprofit aimed at preserving Arab culture. “Because of all that was going on in the Middle East, we were losing our identity, we were losing our art,” she says. “People automatically assumed that anything Arab was going to be hummus and belly dancing. I wanted to really show people that we did have a culture, always had a culture.”

Children's Center in Jordan

Dr. Shafik Amir leads children in an activity at the Malki-SCM Children's Center in Amman, Jordan as staff and doctors from the mission observe. Media credit: Samia Moslimany

The SCM collection features jewelry, baskets, furniture, and other objects collected by Zawaideh through the years. She has shown portions of the collection at events, but has not yet secured a permanent home for it. “I just haven’t had the time to make that happen with all that’s going on in the Middle East,” she says, referring to the Gulf War, the war in Lebanon, and now the war in Syria.

With each conflict, Zawaideh has become more involved in humanitarian efforts. During the Gulf War, she filled her tour buses with medical supplies in Jordan and drove them into Iraq for distribution. During the war in Lebanon, the same tour buses transported Lebanese to safety in neighboring countries. Now Zawaideh is organizing medical missions for Syrian refugees, a complicated endeavor that involves volunteers from all over the U.S. 

The need is there so I just sort of jump in. ...Sometimes I think if I thought things out and wrote work plans, I‘d never do what I did.  But I’m not that kind of a person. I just take chances.

A serendipitous meeting in a Jordan hotel lobby led to the missions. Zawaideh struck up a conversation with a group of Syrian-American doctors who wanted to help Syrian refugees but lacked the necessary nonprofit status. Zawaideh proposed that she and the doctors work together. “I had a nonprofit, they had the medical skills,” she says. She created a branch of SCM for medical missions, registered the nonprofit in Jordan, and appointed the doctors to the board. Before long they were recruiting additional doctors and planning missions.

Last year, SCM organized seven 10-day missions, with Zawaideh and her staff handling travel logistics and procuring medical supplies and other donated items. “One hundred percent of the donations people give us go directly to the cause,” she says. “Our office space is donated. All the doctors and other volunteers on medical missions pay their own way. Nobody makes a dime.”

Medical volunteers in refugee clinic in Jordan.

UW junior Rehman Hamoui (right) assists fellow volunteer Dr. Ron Blumenfield during a recent mission. Media credit: Samia Moslimany

Zawaideh travels with each mission, an experience she finds both motivating and heartbreaking. “I come back emotionally distraught,” she says. “You see more and more people at the border, more infants that die in your arms or that have lost limbs. These were people like you and me who had houses, had businesses, had things going for them. They’ve lost everything.”

Right now Zawaideh is on a mission in Lebanon with a surgical team; the next will be in Jordan in March. As if that’s not enough to keep her busy, she has taken on a new challenge this past year, establishing the Malki-SCM Children’s Center in Amman, Jordan. Run by a psychiatrist from Syria, the Center addresses the psychological needs of the youngest Syrian refugees.

“Psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers on missions with us would talk about the trauma that the children were experiencing, how they were behind in school, how some of them couldn’t speak, how they’d seen their parents killed in front of them,” says Zawaideh. “We thought, ‘Okay, let’s start. Let’s try to help them.’” UW alumna Beryl Cheal (MEd, Education, 1975; MA, International Studies, 1985) has been instrumental in organizing the center. A second SCM Children’s Center is slated to open in March, run by UW alumna Evelyn Zakhary (BA, Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, 1970; MSW, 1973), a social worker in Jordan. Zawaideh hopes to create ten centers in all, funded through donations.

Asked whether she’s surprised at how her efforts have snowballed, Zawaideh just shrugs. “The need is there so I just sort of jump in,” she says. “Nothing is ever planned. Sometimes I think if I thought things out and wrote work plans, I‘d never do what I did.  But I’m not that kind of a person. I just take chances.”

Interested in learning more about SCM’s missions and children’s centers? You can find more information, including ways to help, at the Salaam Cultural Museum website.