Syrian relief effort features music, appeals for aid |

Published in Daily Hampshire Gazette Monday, September 28, 2015

The crowd to benefit medical assistance for Syrian Refugees in the First Churches Sanctuary

The crowd to benefit medical assistance for Syrian Refugees in the First Churches Sanctuary

Syrian relief effort features music, appeals for aid

NORTHAMPTON — The dimly lit solemnity of the First Churches of Northampton sanctuary rang with the sounds of oud and drum Sunday afternoon as Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble took the stage.

Between Layaali’s sets, Boston’s Dr. Abdulfatah Elshaar, president of the New England Chapter of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), and his daughter Ala’a Elshaar spoke about the organization’s efforts to bring medical care to war-ravaged Syria and to Syrian refugees outside the country’s borders. The event, dubbed “Songs for Syria” and produced by the Valley Syrian Relief Committee, saw the First Churches filled to near its capacity of 600.

Dr. Elshaar, who’s been in the U.S. since 1983, said in his remarks that Syrian doctors “risk their lives for saving Syrian lives.” He offered the example of a Syrian cardiologist he’d recently met who was leaving his hospital in Syria and was hit by a bomb. “He was in a coma for three months,” said Elshaar, “and then he woke up in Boston. He had no idea how he’d gotten there. He was thankful just to be able to walk and talk.”

To directly aid doctors in Syria, SAMS supplies doctors at 10 hospitals with training and equipment. SAMS programs usually take place at border towns in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where medical professionals can rendezvous with SAMS, then return to their homes in Syria. The ongoing civil war in Syria has, according to MercyCorps, displaced around 11 million Syrians.

Conditions within the country, Elshaar said, are so bad — hospitals are frequently bombed — that doctors are practicing in some unusual places. “There was a surgeon I met in Turkey last month who was unable to operate where he was. He moved and established a clinic on a chicken farm so it wouldn’t be bombed.”
Dr. Issam Khataya of Shrewsbury, another member of SAMS in attendance, said hospitals are also being set up in underground locations to avoid bombs. Khataya said that in addition to delivering equipment to Syrian hospitals, “We have field hospitals, mobile clinics, even vans that move from village to village. We also have mobile dialysis units and dental clinics.”

It’s an expensive undertaking — one of the organization’s trauma clinics, according to the SAMS website, costs $7,500 per month to maintain. Among its many facilities, SAMS runs 35 such clinics. Contributors can also sponsor doctors, supplying a salary of $600 per month.

Ala’a Elshaar, a researcher for the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, spoke about another aspect of the organization’s activities — helping refugee children who’ve lost one or both parents to the conflict in Syria. Many of them, she said, suffer from post-traumatic stress as well as the loss of a parent.

Elshaar has taken part in “social missions” to aid these children. Often, she said, simply listening to the children’s stories proved helpful.

In her remarks, she told the story of a little boy with issues of anger and aggression she met at an orphanage in Turkey. “He had lost his family, and he’d left his toys, his clothing, everything he had behind.”

Instead of creating a design with colored sand with the other kids, the boy kept throwing sand. One of the other volunteers, Elshaar said, followed the boy’s lead, also throwing handfuls of sand. “After a while, he said, ‘Is this helping you the way it’s helping me?’ ”

In an interview after the event, Elshaar added that the social missions — she has been on four so far — also include giving children things the orphanages often don’t have. “Some places are better equipped than others,” she said, “so we gave every child the supplies they’d need to go to school. We gave them each a backpack filled with supplies. We wanted to encourage them to go to school. We gave them puzzles, crayons, chalk — things to keep them busy, too.”

Even though the missions take place outside of Syria, Elshaar said, “Volunteers’ safety is not guaranteed. But you do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Between the music and remarks at Songs for Syria, the capacity crowd was asked to offer donations, all of which would go to SAMS, with the incentive that an anonymous supporter had pledged to match the first $5,000 raised.

In the crowd was Anne Rosen, 72, of Florence. She said she attended because “of all the horrible crises in the world right now, this seems like the one where we can actually make a difference and not just feel depressed.”

Also in attendance was Mohammed Najeeb, 39, of Westfield, an Iraqi who immigrated to the U.S. in 2009. He came to connect with SAMS and the Valley Syrian Relief Committee as part of his own work with refugees. Najeeb works for Ascentria Care Alliance, an organization that helps with the settlement of new immigrants. The refugees he has helped have come from many places, and Najeeb said, “In the Hampden County area, we’ve got about 20 individuals from Syria we’ve helped. It’s the welcoming communities here that make our job achievable.”

The large and enthusiastic crowd echoed that sentiment, as did Rosen’s remarks. She put it simply: “Northampton — it’s very good at things like this.”



Panelists in Northampton say pope’s encyclical on climate change also speaks to human justice

Tuesday, September 22, 2015
(Published in print: Tuesday, September 22, 2015)

NORTHAMPTON — Pope Francis’ much-talked-about encyclical is about more than climate change — it speaks of a unified theory of how people can live on Earth and with one another.

So said the three panelists at a moderated discussion of the document at First Churches Northampton on Monday.

The panel featured University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Craig Nicolson, a parishioner at the Newman Catholic Church, Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, senior pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church and Rabbi David Seidenberg, creator and director of

The Rev. Todd Weir, who is senior minister at First Churches, introduced Monday’s event by telling the approximately 70 people in attendance that he believed he knew why they were there.

“It’s time to move forward on the environment and on other issues of justice,” he said. “We’re excited by the pope, and do you know how good that makes me feel to say that as a protestant?”
Discussion of different faiths and their view of the environment made up much of the discussion Monday, which was scheduled to coincide with Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, which begins Tuesday.

Nicolson, who teaches sustainability science at UMass, spoke about the universality of the Pope’s message.

“No matter who you are and where you come from, this is an encyclical that is for you,” he said. “Pope Francis says this clearly on the second page in my eduction, ‘I wish to address every person living on this planet.’ ”

He added that Francis said he wants to stimulate conversation on the topic of climate change and the environment.

“We’re doing exactly what the pope wants us to be doing, talking across different traditions and different lines that might demarcate separate groups of people,” he said.

One of the issues that has led to people treating the planet badly is the interpretation of Genesis that Adam is called upon to dominate over nature, whereas Francis interprets the book that humans must live with nature rather than dominate it.

Seidenberg began his remarks by asking the audience to step back and consider what the purpose of religion is. He said that Christian religions focus on individual salvation while Judaism looks at redemption of an entire people. Native American religions also focus on sustainability, which should be the focus of all religions, he said.

“All religions have to meet that goal or they will not continue to exist,” he said.

While some religions teach practitioners that their true home is not on Earth, but in an otherworldly place, the emphasis on saving the planet becomes sidelined, he said. Those of the Jewish faith have gone along with the commercialism and disregard for the environment that has gone along with this view, he said.

“Pope Francis has done a great service and great good and given us a great gift in shifting that direction and shifting that ideology to refocus what is important,” he said.
Fundamental to that document is the idea that justice for the Earth and justice for human beings is intertwined, he said.

Seidenberg said that in Chapter 26 of Leviticus, God tells people that they must not make him choose between humanity and the land itself, or He will choose the land at the expense of humanity.

Ayvazian said she read Pope Francis’ encyclical with a pen in hand and she underlined the passages she loved. There were underlined passages on every page, she said.

Most resonant with her were passages about how the excessive consumption of natural resources by wealthy nations and corporations caused suffering among the poor.

“Our world has a grave social debt to the poor,” she said.

The climate is a common resource belonging to all and meant for all, including creatures other than humans, Ayvazian said.

“He points out repeatedly that all creatures are connected and each must be respected with love,” she said.

Her one problem with the document is that it tells individual people to change their habits to better serve the planet, but it does not do anything to hold large corporations accountable. She said she believes the corporations are the true culprits for climate change.

In terms of where people must place their effort, she said it was in climate action activism — being active in campaigning and acting for the environment.

Mary Jo Maffei of Shutesbury said she came to Monday’s discussion because she read the pope’s encyclical and was validated in her own beliefs that environmental issues are moral issues.

She was impressed by what the panelists said, particularly Seidenberg’s discussion of bringing mysticism to the center of religious thought and practice.

“I hope it can be a galvanizing event so people get drawn together to fix our problems before it’s too late,” she said.

Yosh Schulman of Northampton said he was impressed by Nicolson’s statement that ecology is connected to every part of life, including culture and the economy.

He said he came to Monday’s event because he was interested to hear different faith leaders’ perspectives on the encyclical, of which he had read portions.

“It’s been exciting to see a figure such as the pope having views that I can align with both environmentally and socially,” he said.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


Parking spots transformed into mini-parks, each with its own message, on Park(ing) Day

photo from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Ken Gutting

Friday, September 18, 2015
(Published in print: Saturday, September 19, 2015)

NORTHAMPTON — Anyone passing in front of City Hall or the Unitarian Society on Main Street perhaps thought there was a farmers’ market happening Friday. Four blocked-off parking spaces were filled with flowers, pumpkins, bales of hay, and baskets of vegetables and bread — and volunteers who were welcoming passersby in from the sidewalk.

They took over the parking spaces for Park(ing) Day, an international event during which people transform parking spaces into parks. The event began in San Francisco in 2005, when an art studio called Rebar put sod, a tree and a bench in a parking space to draw attention to the need for green space in urban communities.

In Northampton, volunteers from several different religious institutions set up shop in the parking spaces to spread another message. “The theme is rest, renewal and rejuvenation,” said Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, the pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church. Also, she said, “care of creation” — taking care of the Earth and everything on it.

“In the middle of the hustle and bustle, it’s an oasis of peace and renewal,” Ayvazian said.

The interfaith group encouraged people passing by to stop, chat, and take a blessing — written on a scrap of paper — or a cherry tomato grown at Abundance Farm at Congregation B’nai Israel. In one parking spot, massage therapist Patty Gates guided a woman through calming breathing and gave her a relaxing massage.
Ayvazian and Congregation B’nai Israel Rabbi Justin David said participating in Park(ing) Day was an idea voiced at one of the regular meetings among the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities. Events that get them out in the public are a great chance to meet new people and strengthen existing connections.

Visitors who stopped by the spots included Mayor David J. Narkewicz, Police Chief Jody Kasper, and staff from the parking clerks’ office.

Groups took over parking spaces in several other cities and towns around the Pioneer Valley Friday, including Amherst and Greenfield. And like the group in Northampton, those who occupied the mini-parks saw the event as a chance to send a message — in addition to the original meaning of the day.

“Park(ing) Days in different cities have always had their own flavors,” Ayvazian said. “Ours has a particularly spiritual bent.”

In downtown Amherst, a group of landscape architecture students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst set up a park with plants loaned from the Hadley Garden Center. They also built a display of balloons and signs aimed to demonstrate how a bioswale — a planting of water-loving trees or plants to aid in slowing and filtering surface runoff water — would keep the pond cleaner on the campus.

“The theme for this year was green infrastructure,” said Andrew Woodward, a senior at UMass. He is a member of the Boston Society of Landscape Architects Student Chapter, which put together the display in an East Pleasant Street parking spot in the area of Kendrick Park.

He said the group saw Park(ing) Day as an opportunity to show the community what landscape architects do, and also promote their idea that a bioswale could help clarify runoff water in Amherst.

Surface water in downtown Amherst, including oil and other pollutants from cars, currently runs downhill to the area of Kendrick Park, Woodward said. A drain — right next to the parking spot they took over — collects the water and filters it to a degree before releasing it into Tan Brook.

Woodward said the brook is underground and most people are not aware it exists. It carries the water to the pond at UMass, bringing with it some of the toxins collected downtown, he said.

Woodward said planting a certain vegetations in its path would slow down the flow of the water, allowing more dense metals or other substances to settle out, and allow the plants to absorb toxins out of the water.
In illustrating their message, the students represented the polluted runoff by writing the names of contaminants on black, gray and yellow helium balloons and tying them to parking meters uphill of their parking space, which represented the bioswale. Downhill of the spot, clusters of bright blue balloons labeled H2O bobbed in the breeze. A circle of blue balloons represented the cleaner campus pond.

“The town does have plans to redesign Kendrick Park,” Woodward said, and he hopes they will consider the concept of a bioswale.

Woodward said a rotating group of landscape architecture students occupied the space from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and explained the concept to many people who stopped to ask what they were doing.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at