A 44-year-old father of six living in Finland, Rami Adham was working as an underwater engineer when the Syrian revolution began in early 2011.
“I watched the crisis unfold,” Adham, who is from Aleppo but has lived in Finland since 1989, tells Syria Direct’s Sama Mohammad.
In 2012, after fighting reached his home city of Aleppo, Adham decided to withdraw his savings to start a charity for Syrian children. The plan was to purchase medicine and other basic supplies and personally deliver them to refugee camps outside Aleppo.
But as Adham prepared for his trip to Syria, his daughter Yasmeen brought him a bag of her own toys to bring with him.
“I told myself it was a nice gesture from a small child and decided to bring about 100 toys as well.”
Four years later, Adham has travelled to Syria more than a dozen times and his charity—Suomi Syyria Yhteisö (SSY or Finland Syria Association in Finnish)— sponsors orphans and is working to build schools close to the Turkish border, “where it is safe from constant bombing.”
Rami Adham, “The Toy Smuggler of Aleppo,” hands out toys to children in Aleppo province. (All photos courtesy Rami Adham).
Relying exclusively on individual donations, the SSY project’s GoFundMe page, has raised nearly $70,000 in private donations over the past month.
Now famous as “The Toy Smuggler of Aleppo,” his dangerous trips back home to Syria are vital for children still trapped in war zones—especially in his home city Aleppo, which Adham says he can no longer visit following the Syrian regime’s siege of the city.
Nearly 100 children were killed last week during heavy regime and Russian bombardment over Aleppo’s rebel-held east following a failed ceasefire, reported UNICEF in an online statement. Amid relentless airstrikes, many children in east Aleppo now attend schools located in underground bunkers, and there are only 12 trained doctors left in the bombed-out eastern half of the city.
“The children of Aleppo are trapped in a living nightmare,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Justin Forsyth in the statement.
Interviewed below, Adham says he has a special duty to serve children battered by his home country’s civil war.
“If people like me don’t help the people of Syria, who will?”
Q: What was your job before the revolution?
Before the revolution, I worked in underwater construction engineering as a commercial diver.
Now, I’m completely focused on my campaign in Syria – especially since the project grew and I’ve gathered a full team. The team is made up of Syrian and Finnish volunteers. Some of us work in Finland and others in Syria.
At first, I did all the work personally, but once the project grew too much for me to handle on my own, we started sharing tasks [amongst the volunteers].
I’m the only one in the team who can go to Syria to carry out our work, because the other volunteers are unable to enter the country.
Rami Adham, 44, caries aid supplies into Aleppo province through the Syrian-Turkish border.
Q: Why did you decide to return to Syria?
The idea started four and a half years ago, in 2012. I was in Finland when the revolution broke out, and for a year I watched the crisis unfold.
I had to help the people of my country. I got the idea to use my savings to start a charity. I took $5,000 with me and entered Syria through Turkey.
Q: How did you get the idea to hand out toys?
Before I left, my daughter Yasmeen collected a huge bag of toys and told me to bring them to the children in Syria. They weighed about 30 kilograms, but I told myself it was a nice gesture from a young child and decided to bring about 100 toys with me.
Q: Did your family oppose the idea of you travelling to Syria?
When I first told my family that was going to Syria, they all got scared.
“Dad, there’s a war there,” they said. But I told my children that there were many kids like them that had lost their homes and families, and that they needed help.
I’m a stubborn person. If I have an idea, I’m going to do it. I try as hard as I can to not think about the fear and the danger. I try to just remind my family that the work I do is very important.
I remind my children that I am going to Syria to give out toys, which makes them feel like I’m going to a festival. They don’t know just how dangerous it is there.
My children have gotten used to my trips to Syria.
“As a Syrian, I can’t abandon my people” – Adham gives out food in Aleppo.
Q: Describe your first visit to Syria after the revolution.
The first three days after I arrived, I cried.
After I finished handing out basic supplies [to the displaced people], I told them that I had toys. They were very surprised that I came to give out toys, so I told them they were from my daughter.
Nothing else I had done before compared to the children’s smiles when they received the toys.
This left a huge impression on me.
As soon as I returned [to Finland] I posted on Facebook asking for toy donations. All of my friends started bringing me bags full of toys. After that, I told my friends I was going to Syria again, and this time the response was even bigger. I received donations of around 8,000 Euros, and took almost 200 or 300 toys.
Every two months I go [to Syria]. My project is now building its fourth school. We also sponsor orphans and around 500 families.
Q: What areas do you work in?
80 percent of my work is in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside – the areas of A-Sha’r, Bustan al-Qasr, Joura Awad, al-Sakhour, and all of the eastern neighborhoods that are under opposition authority.
Q: How do you enter Syria?
Entering Syria has become harder since Turkey shut the border. Now, the only way to enter is through the routes used by refugees.
I’ve entered Syria 12 times on the unofficial route.
Adham hands out toys in Aleppo. “Nothing else I had done before compared to the children’s smiles when they received the toys,” he says.
Q: Does your project receive any official support?
We don’t receive any official donations. Our only support comes from sympathizers and individual people in Finland. We don’t have any support from the government or NGOs.
Syria needs aid from the UN, not just from foundations like ours. The situation in Syria has become an international issue.
As a Syrian, I can’t abandon my people – that’s why I did what I did. The people believe in us, and we must reach out our hands to help them. If people like me don’t help the people of Syria, who will? The West? America? Germany? Russia? Who?
For people and children still remaining in Syria, the situation is a tragedy. They are the poorest people in Syria, and the ones that need support the most.
Life for children has changed from the first time I visited Syria in 2012. Children have lost hope in the outside world, something very sad. They feel like orphans. I’m afraid that we will lose hope in Syria’s future, that we will lose hope in this generation
Q: Has wide media coverage of your project increased donations?
I’ve been invited to appear in a documentary about my work, and how I smuggle toys. I hope it will raise funds that I can bring back to Syria.
Of course, the media coverage and the interest of the world increased by 1,000 percent. At first, there was just local Finnish attention in our work. In the past three months, however, international media has given us huge worldwide attention. Since then, the donations have increased.
We hope God accepts our work and ends our people’s suffering.
Rami stands in his home city Aleppo, which he can’t visit anymore because of the siege. He still brings aid to Aleppo’s surrounding countryside.
Reporting by: Madeline Edwards