Images of devastation in Syria hit closer to home for WWE Superstar Sami Zayn than for many others. The 33-year-old professional wrestler may have been born in Canada, but he still has family members living in Syria, as well as ones displaced by the conflict.
One of the most popular professional wrestlers in the world, Zayn has decided to use his fame and social media reach to do what he can to help those most in need of assistance in the war-torn country.
In July, Zayn partnered with the Syrian American Medical Society (Sams) to launch the #SamiForSyria campaign, seeking to raise funds for a mobile clinic providing primary medical aid to civilians who otherwise have no access to healthcare.
He took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Gulf News tabloid! about what inspired him to start #SamiForSyria, the reaction of fans, and the importance of psychological care for those affected by the conflict.
How would you describe #SamiForSyria to those who’ve never heard of it?
The easiest way to describe it is raising funds to be able to launch a mobile clinic on the ground in Syria, to bring primary healthcare to people who literally have no access to it otherwise. People who are living in camps or have had their homes destroyed, or are living in remote areas where they have no access to transportation or fuel or medical services. We are literally bringing medical aid their doorsteps.
How much money has been raised so far?
As of right now $57,000 [Dh209,329], but I pledged to match all donations in the week leading up to WWE’s SummerSlam, so I’ll be putting in another $10,000, which brings us to $67,000. This is very exciting because the minimum we needed was $48,000, just to launch and have enough for the first six months. Now we have enough for maybe a little longer, or maybe to be able to visit more towns and bring access to more people. If I keep getting a reasonable amount of donations there’s no reason we can’t potentially launch a second clinic.
What inspired you to start the campaign?
Obviously the conflict in Syria is a very personal issue to me, being of Syrian descent. I’m a Canadian born Syrian, my parents are from Syria, my brother and I are the first generation of my family to be born in Canada. I’ve been to Syria. For all intents and purposes, I’m Syrian, so it hits a bit closer to home for me than maybe to some others.
Ultimately what this is really about is that for the longest time I’ve looked at the situation over there and just felt very hopeless. I wished I could do something. The problems of the world can sometimes seem so overwhelming you feel you really can’t do anything to help, but I just reached a point in my life where I realised, you know what, you can do something. So this is what we’re doing. You can’t save the world, can’t necessarily stop the conflict altogether, but you have the power to help people in distress.
What has the reaction from fans been like?
It’s been very good. What’s surprised me the most is that almost zero people have tried to make it about something it’s not. Sams is a non-political, non-religious [group]... it’s a US-based charity. You hear the word ‘Syria’, and there’s a lot of political implications that come with it, with the very mention of the country, the very mention of the conflict. It has so many political implications, but that’s not what this campaign is about, it’s 100 per cent just about bringing medical aid to people in distress. The best thing I can say about the fan reaction is how many people have been willing to help and how few have tried to make it about politics or religion or something it’s not.
Can you talk a little more about the on-the-ground impact the donations will have?
The group I’m working with, there’s a lot of wonderful stuff not just in these refugee camps in neighbouring countries, but it’s also one of the few organisations that can help the people actually on the ground in Syria, in the thick of the conflict. That’s one of the main reasons I partnered with them on this project. And I think it’s going to be a lot more rewarding to see when the clinic is up and running. That’s one thing I love about this project is you get to see where the money goes. All the medical services provided by the clinic, something around 1,200 to 1,300 medical services a month, every single one of those is a result of funds people have donated. I can directly show people: your money is doing this. And people feel good when they donate and can see the result of their contributions.
I understand the mobile medical units will also provide psychological support
That is something very important to me. Sams has so many wonderful programmes and services. One thing that really spoke to me and I felt was neglected was the psychological effects. You watch the news, and I’ve looked really deeply into Syria and seen a lot of traumatic things I can’t unsee, horrible images that have kind of been burnt into my brain.
They’re not going anywhere; it’s stuff I’ll never forget. And I’m looking at it on my screen or phone from thousands of miles away. So imagine actually living through that and experiencing it and seeing it happen to your neighbour or husband or kids. We kind of forget that people have to live with the psychological effects for the rest of their lives.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I feel as Arabs in Gulf countries and the Middle East in general we all really need to help each other. We need to band together and really help each other out.
SAMI ZAYN ON...
Being a role model for a new generation
Watching professional wrestling growing up, Sami Zayn didn’t have any role models in the sport he could relate to as an Arab.
“I know there was the Iron Shaikh, but that was the ‘80s and it was a very sort of cartoony depiction of Arabs and foreigners. That was just the way of the world in the ‘80s,” Zayn said.
But things have changed, not least thanks to Zayn himself, who is a hero to many young fans in the region and throughout the world.
“If I can be a role model that’s cool. It’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself to try to be perfect, and I’m far from perfect, so I don’t want to go out of my way to call myself a role model,” Zayn said.
“I feel like if you’re an Arab kid living in the West or even in the Middle East today, you’re from sort of this new school. I just I am who I am, and I happen to be an Arab, and I think that’s a lot more relatable to kids nowadays than, you know, wrapping myself in a turban, or pulling out a prayer rug in the middle of the ring or whatever. I don’t think people identify with that as much.
“If I can help be more relatable in a positive way, then that’s really something I can be proud of and that’s a big deal to me.”
Following a dream
Zayn had some advice for those who want to follow in his footsteps to success and fame in the squared circle.
“You know, anything is possible. I did it, which means you can obviously do it,” he said.
“You just need to apply yourself and really, really dedicate yourself to it. But if you’re in the Middle East, the first thing I’m going to tell you is you’re probably going to have to move. You have to move to England to get trained and to cut your teeth, or go to Canada or the US, because that’s really where most of the wrestling is.
“At least that’s my experience. But again, things aren’t the way they were 15 years ago when I started wrestling. Now, I came with WWE to Dubai to do tryouts. So WWE is actively now going to the Middle East, to North Africa and India and seeking out talent from there, so there’s much more visibility from WWE in these areas than there ever has been.
“But if you want to do it the old school way, the way I did it, I suggest that when you get old enough and it’s the right move for you, and something you truly believe in, you might have to pack your bags and hit the road.”
MESSAGE TO UAE FANS
Zayn in Abu Dhabi in 2015
Performing for fans in the UAE is always special to Zayn.
“I know we didn’t get a chance to come to Dubai or Abu Dhabi this year, but I really hope we get a chance to come back next year,” he said.
“I feel it’s been way too long since we’ve been in the Middle East, and any time I wrestle in there obviously it’s a bit of a homecoming for me personally. So I just can’t wait to be back, and I’ll see you guys real soon.