Q&A: Sami Zayn on raising funds for Syria, which wrestlers have contributed and what he's learned

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Saturday September 9th, 2017

For WWE star Sami Zayn, the proudest day of his life came last week, the result of accomplishments not in a wrestling ring but thousands of miles away, across an ocean and sea. “Tears of joy,” Zayn tweeted on Aug. 31, accompanied by photos of children receiving medical treatment. “Our mobile clinic in Syria is up & running!”

Zayn (real name Rami Sebei), the Quebec-born son of two Syrian-born parents, has always taken pride in his heritage, as evidenced by the Arabic script of his name often displayed on his tights. (“I always consider myself Syrian,” says Zayn. “I just happen to be born in Canada.”) In recent years that has taken on a different significance, as Syria has been mired in a civil war since 2011, a conflict that has killed nearly half a million people and displaced millions more. With family both still in Syria and that has had to leave their homeland seeking safety, the conflict had long resonated personally with Zayn. This summer, those feelings finally urged him into action. “I just reached a point in my life where I realized that just talking about the problems wasn’t really doing anything,” says the 33-year-old Zayn. “I really felt like it was time to actually do something.”

In July, Zayn launched Sami For Syria, a partnership with the Syrian American Medical Society to fund a mobile medical clinic that would provide care for those in the country who cannot otherwise receive it. The initial fundraising goal of $50,000 was hit by mid-August, and the clinic was up and running within weeks. Zayn recently spoke with SI.com about his pride in the project, how it came about, what he’s learned from it, and how you can help going forward.

SI: Why did you choose to a mobile clinic for fundraising?

Sami Zayn: First of all, it was difficult to get it to this point, just in terms of figuring out who to help, how to go about helping, who needs it the most. My brother does a lot of humanitarian work in Canada and I asked him about some organizations. One that came up was SAMS, the Syrian American Medical Society. They have doctors who go over there to various refugee camps in neighboring countries, but they also have a network on the ground in Syria, which is very hard to come by, because it’s become such a hostile and dangerous place even for medical workers. So I got in touch with them and I looked at all the various programs they had and to me, the overwhelming thought and overwhelming feeling was just the people that are still stranded there need the help the most. That’s not taking anything away from the plight of the people living in refugee camps in Lebanon or Jordan or refugees who have come to Canada or the States or Europe. Everyone’s had it rough. But I just felt like the people who are actually on the ground stranded with no help needed it the most.

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SI: How do you get something like that off the ground?

SZ: That’s where SAMS comes into play. The logistics are all on their part. They have a network of people on the ground in Syria so they basically have the doctor and the nurse, the midwife, the pharmacist and all that stuff -- they have access to all that. All I really did was try to raise awareness and raise money and raise funding so that we can actually launch a mobile clinic. I’m really proud to say that we did. It’s running five days a week right now. On average these clinics run about 1,200 medical procedures a month. It’s really cool that two months ago this was just an idea, and now two months later it’s actually in action, and people who have donated can actually see their money going to work, which I find very rewarding.

SI: What was the response like when you first put this out there?

SZ: I was apprehensive, to be honest. Even when you just hear the word Syria, it packs a lot of political connotations. My concern was about it being turned into something that it wasn’t. That’s another reason why I partnered with SAMS, because they’re a non-religious, non-political, non-profit organization that is simply about medical relief and humanitarian aid. One thing I was really happy to see -- because the Internet can be a pretty negative place sometimes -- was nobody tried to turn it into something it wasn’t. Nobody tried to politicize it. People just really seemed to get on board and generally support the cause, which I really appreciate.

SI: How did you find out it was up and operational?

SZ: To be honest with you, leading into all this, before it actually launched, I didn’t actually have any sense of pride or sense of doing something good. I don’t want to say it became work, but I was working hard to contact SAMS and try to raise funds and this and that, and I put a lot on my plate. For me personally, I lost sight of the fact of what we’re actually doing here and the people we’re actually helping. So when I saw the images and got the news that it was operational, first of all, I was like, ‘What?’ It caught me off guard. I was surprised they were able to move so quick, but part of that is just because the necessity is so high. Then once the images came in, it really made me pretty emotional. It reminded me what this actually is. It’s not just phone calls and e-mails and ‘how are we doing?’ and ‘where is the funding at?’ and ‘should this number be higher or lower by now?’ All that went out the window and I realized these are the faces of the children and the people who are actually getting help, who are getting care. That really, really was overwhelming. I feel like I’m a very, very small part of it, because the true heroes are the doctors and nurses and medical personnel who are working on the ground risking their lives, putting themselves in jeopardy to even do this. I’m just humbled by their actions.

SI: What particular work does the clinic do?

SZ: Like any clinic, it’s preventable and chronic illness and things like that. A lot of these people’s homes have been destroyed or they’re living in rural areas or camps where they don’t have access to healthcare at all. So the reason it’s a mobile clinic is we’re able to bring these supplies and medical personnel directly to them. When you’re malnourished or you don’t have access to clean water or decent food everyday, a lot of these illnesses are popping up and they’re preventable and that’s hopefully what the clinic will help with.

In addition to that, there’s also a midwife working with the clinic and there’s also a psychiatrist and they’re training someone to work more in psychosocial care, which to me is really important. One of the first ideas I had, before the idea of a mobile clinic even came up, was to provide some sort of mental healthcare for these people. As I got more involved with Syria and what’s going on, I started seeing more images and videos that, honestly, part of me wishes I had never seen. But I think it’s something that almost needs to be seen, so you understand what the Syrian people are actually going through. It was very traumatic just for me, watching it from the comfort of my home. I’m all the way here and it’s still traumatizing to me. So I can’t imagine how traumatic it is to these people who are actually living it, or living with people who have lived it, or have lost people. The trauma, it’s something that most people don’t take into account. So I’m very happy to see that the mobile clinic is providing psychosocial care as well as primary healthcare.

Courtesy of WWE

SI: Have any WWE colleagues gotten involved?

SZ: The response of my coworkers and fellow WWE Superstars has been pretty overwhelming. They’ve been very supportive, a lot of them retweeting it to their fans as well. There have been some pretty big financial contributions. I know Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins both chipped in $5,000 a piece, which is huge. Daniel Bryan, Mick Foley, Brian Kendrick, Becky Lynch, Chris Jericho donated -- I don’t wanna leave anyone out. Shinsuke Nakamura. A lot of people actually contributed financially. The other day I had a big conversation with Triple H about it and he was really proud and happy to see it. It’s hard to get the ball rolling for it to really sort of catch on, but the support from my coworkers and the company has been very nice.

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SI: Have you given any thought to further plans?

SZ: I’ve been meaning to put out another video or just share more of the media I’ve been getting. I want to provide an update and let people know that even though we’ve launched the clinic, it doesn’t mean it’s over. The funding that we raised really was just enough to keep it afloat for probably six to eight months. The conflict isn’t looking like it will end any time soon. So as far as I’m concerned, if it’s not over for the people of Syria, it’s not over for me or for us, for all of us trying to do our part to help. It’s hard to sustain that but I feel like that’s the goal. It’s not like, ‘Okay guys, it’s done, here’s some pictures of kids getting help, let’s move on and pat ourselves on the back.’ There’s still a lot that needs to be done.

Where we’re at right now is we’ve raised almost $70,000, so I’ve actually talked to SAMS about various possibilities of where we go from here. If we continue to raise more money, it could A) continue to fund the clinic that we’ve launched; or B) it could actually go to help fund another clinic that’s already running that’s critically low in funding; or C) if we hit our target goal now of $96,000, we can possibly launch a second mobile clinic. I think there’s even a demand for an actual clinic, not just a mobile one. There’s no shortage of help to be provided. There’s always a demand. We’ll see what happens next. But to me, it shouldn’t be over, that’s for sure.

SI: If someone reading this wants to help out, what would be your advice?

SZ: I have two pieces of advice here. One pertains to what we’re doing and one pertains in general. One, obviously if you want to support this cause, and it is a worthwhile cause, go to SamiForSyria.com and donate financially. That’s the easiest way to support it. The good thing about this campaign is you actually get to see your money at work. I know that’s a big thing for a lot of people who are apprehensive about donating to charity, myself included once upon a time. Any time I’m donating to charity I feel it’s very daunting. You have to do a lot of research to make sure that the charity’s on the up-and-up and everything like that, so I get all that. One of the amazing things about this is if you want to do your research and check out what it’s about, that’s fine; everything checks out. It’s not like when you’re donating and don’t know exactly where the funds are allocated and you don’t know where it ends up or how it all works. This is very simple: you donate, and here’s exactly where it goes. Here’s the faces of the kids it has helped. Here’s a clinic that didn’t exist two months ago, and that’s directly because of financial contributions. That’s one thing I find particularly satisfying to people who are donating or who want to donate.

And my other message to people is the big lesson that I’m taking out of all of this is: If you’ve got a problem with something, just do something about it. The response to this has been so positive, but I’ve gotten the odd tweet saying, ‘oh why are you helping these people and not helping those people?’ That’s fine. Other people need help too. Let’s talk about homeless veterans right here in the U.S. They do need help. I agree with you. So what are you doing? What are you doing to help? That’s the whole point here. You can cut out the middleman. It’s not as overwhelming as it seems. We genuinely have the power to affect change. We can make a difference. And you don’t have to be a WWE Superstar or an NFL player to do it. If there’s a cause you believe in, go out there, get active, and do it.

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