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Originally published September 3, 2013 at 8:57 PM | Page modified September 3, 2013 at 10:15 PM

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‘We can’t forget the people’: Seattle humanitarian heads to Syria with doctors, medicine

Rita Zawaideh and 29 doctors are headed to the Middle East, despite a potential bombing by the U.S., to lend aid to thousands of injured and homeless people in the wake of a chemical-weapons attack

Seattle Times staff reporter

How to help

Rita Zawaideh’s nonprofit, Salaam Cultural Museum, accepts donations of clothes, food and money for Syrian refugees via PayPal.

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Three bulging suitcases, each with a bright red bow tied on the handle, sat by the door in Rita Zawaideh’s North Seattle office Tuesday evening.

“Don’t ask me to unpack them,” she said with a laugh, as her Yorkshire terrier, Omar, scampered around her feet.

Zawaideh is leaving Wednesday, but not for a late-summer vacation. Her bags are full of donated medicine — 250 pounds, total. She and 29 doctors, each with several such suitcases of their own, are en route to Jordan.

There, they’ll meet 10 more doctors who already have arrived and spend two weeks opening clinics and administering care to Syrians who have fled into the neighboring country during a brutal civil war, which has killed an estimated 100,000 Syrians and left millions homeless, according to the United Nations.

Disregarding the potential threat of a U.S. missile strike, members of the group will also venture into Syria to find refugees who haven’t made it to camps in both Syria and Jordan, seek out orphaned children reported to be hiding in caves and help those without paperwork who might not otherwise be able to receive care.

This isn’t the first trip back home for Zawaideh, a native of Jordan.

Zawaideh immigrated to the U.S. when she was 5 years old. She graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in West African architectural history, then spent nearly a decade in the Middle East teaching English.

In 1982, the violence there became too much for her, and she moved to Seattle. But she couldn’t stay away entirely. She opened a travel agency for vacations to the Middle East and Northern Africa. It grew into a $3.5 million business before airlines started cutting back on the commissions they had been doling out to travel agencies like hers.

Plus, she was tired of hearing people say they’d “seen the Middle East” through the window of a tour bus. So, she turned her business into a tour company and took groups to the area herself, showing them around her former home. Seeing the country beyond the common tourist areas helped people understand the Middle East on a deeper level, she said.

When frequent violence and war broke out, her tour buses became medic buses, transporting the wounded to hospitals. The agency’s offices in the Mideast became temporary shelters, housing the injured or displaced.

When tension in the area caused profits to slip, Zawaideh dipped into her savings to keep the tour business afloat.

At the beginning of this year, Zawaideh started making a different type of trip back to the Mideast.

Rather than returning to her native country with 15 or 20 tourists in tow, she has taken doctors, medicine and supplies every month-and-a-half since January. Efforts like this have won Zawaideh countless humanitarian awards, which litter the walls in her office.

But this week’s trip is different.

President Obama and some congressional leaders are pushing for a military strike in Syria in response to a chemical-weapons attack last month believed to have been carried out by forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The attack killed more than 1,000 civilians, including more than 400 children, Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Zawaideh won’t say whether she thinks the U.S. should act. Doing so would jeopardize her mission as a humanitarian, she said. She does wish the U.S. would lift its embargoes on the country, though, which she says hurt its people more than its government.

Doesn’t she worry about putting her life in danger while she’s over there?

“No,” she said firmly. “You could die here going to a movie theater, sending your kids to school. How many weirdos are there here? When it’s your time, it’s your time.”

If anything, the chemical-weapons attack has emboldened the group and given them more of a feeling of urgency.

“We just have to get in there,” she said. “We can’t forget the people. We need to tell them there are people who really care what’s happening.”

Colin Campbell: 206-464-2033 or ccampbell@seattletimes.com. On Twitter, @cmcampbell6

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