Yakzan Shishakly is a towering presence – at 6 feet, 4 inches, he stands well above the huddle of 4-foot-tall youngsters crowding at his sides.
But the schoolchildren of the Bayti (“My Home”) Orphanage are delighted to see him – he’s a regular presence and paternal figure for these Syrian orphans in Reyhanli, Turkey.
“La! La, la, la!” (No! No, no, no!”) he teasingly cries through fingers protecting his face, in response to their merciless tickling assault. They do not relent. He finally sighs, releasing a heartfelt laugh, and they collapse onto him in a heap of hugs.
It’s just another day at the orphanage, where children of Syria’s civil war are given a safe space to rebuild their futures.
The children of Bayti have seen and experienced much in their short lives. One boy, Adnan, saw security forces of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shoot his father in their own home. One girl’s father was shot on the way to work by unknown assailants.
UNICEF estimates that so far in 2015 at least 8,000 Syrian children have arrived in Turkey without parents; many others have lost one or both parents while living in refugee camps.
Syrian women are traditionally not the breadwinners of a family. So wives who have lost their husbands often must resort to begging or become unwillingly participants in the underground economy to support their children.
Mr. Shishakly saw the tremendous difficulties facing these children, which led him to establish the Bayti Orphanage in September 2014. It provides a home to 60 orphaned Syrian children, feeds them Syrian food cooked by Syrian refugees, and offers coed education, a playground, an international pen pal program, and a new computer lab. “Who knows,” Shishakly says, “one of these children may be the next Steve Jobs.” (The late Mr. Jobs, cofounder and former chief executive officer of Apple Inc., was of Syrian descent.)
Shishakly himself is the embodiment of the American dream. A first-generation American, he came to the United States after high school and worked in a coffee shop to put himself through English classes and college – eventually establishing a successful air-conditioning business in Houston – and obtained US citizenship.
His down-to-earth pragmatism never hints at his family’s political legacy in Syria. Shishakly’s grandfather, Adib Shishakly, was a military leader and one of the first presidents of Syria (1953-54). In later years the Assad regime kept a careful watch on the Shishakly family with a tense understanding that if the Shishaklys kept out of politics, they would not be harassed.
Eventually Yakzan Shishakly followed the lead of his elder brother (also named Adib) and immigrated to the US.
But when Yakzan witnessed the eruption of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, he was jolted into action; his countrymen, friends, and family were fighting for a progressive and free country.
Shishakly immediately began to organize weekly protests in Houston against the brutal crackdown on civilians carried out under Mr. Assad. He helped mobilize the local Syrian diaspora and supported humanitarian organizations working in Syria.
But as the conflict wore on, Shishakly decided to go to Turkey, which shares a border with Syria. In September 2012, he began crossing back and forth into Syria.
When Shishakly reached Hatay, Turkey, on the Syrian border in October 2012, he discovered hundreds of displaced Syrian men, women, and children hiding in olive groves on the Syrian side of the border.
Internally displaced persons, or IDPs, are a particularly vulnerable population in Syria; they have been forced to relocate because of the conflict, often having lost their possessions and livelihoods. Unlike refugees who have reached another country, the people Shishakly found had no access to international aid.
Marta Vuch, who works on humanitarian crises for the Italian aid organization Auxilia Italia, has teamed up with Shishakly “since the beginning,” she says. “We were tracing IDPs and where they were moving – trying to anticipate how to help them,” she says. “People were streaming into Atmeh, Syria, from all directions and just sleeping under the olive trees.... Then Shishakly appeared there with his team, organizing the first camp for IDPs in Syria.”
He would cross back into Turkey, purchase supplies such as tents and water tanks with his own money or funds supplied by donors, and return to Syria to deliver them to the IDPs. He created the first nongovernmental IDP camp for Syrians, the Olive Tree Camp, which today holds more than 60,000 people.
Shishakly visited the Olive Tree Camp every day. As soon as he arrived, he would be swarmed by people who needed something: medicine, a new tent, more food, or even a solution to a personal problem arising from a dispute among the factions of Syrians thrown together in desperate circumstances.
“Ya mokhtar!” (“Hey, Mayor!”) they would call out to him before launching into their requests or complaints.
In an interview at his office in Gaziantep, Turkey, Shishakly reflects on how hard it would be for him to go home. “If you are their only hope, how can you leave them in need?” he says. “I can’t easily adjust from these circumstances to so-called normal life.”
Soon after establishing the camp, Shishakly met Maram, a little Syrian girl who had been paralyzed by a shell fragment and was no longer able to walk. But Maram never gave up hope that one day she would regain the ability to move freely. Shishakly was so inspired by her that in October 2012 he decided to leave his business in Houston and establish a foundation dedicated to providing help to Syrians.
Ms. Vuch is impressed by Shishakly’s work, particularly with the Bayti Orphanage, which Auxilia Italia supports. “He really is making a difference in the world – looking after these kids as if they were his own kids,” she says.
Despite his family’s prominent political history, Shishakly insists he is not interested in entering politics.
But he is looking ahead to new challenges: offering schooling for refugee children whose studies have been disrupted, providing empowerment programs to women and youths affected by the conflict, and planning for the eventual rebuilding of Syria.
Sprawled out on the couch back at Bayti, Shishakly is asked how he keeps going.
“When you help, you make a difference in a life – that feeling is more than enough to empower you to keep working,” he says.
[Editor's note: The byline for this story has been updated.]
• The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is working in Turkey in coordination with Shishakly's and other nongovernmental organizations to deliver aid to refugees. There is a need for donations before the winter fully sets in. Items such as clothes, tents, and food are distributed by the UNHCR in preparation for the harsh winter months in camps. Donations to the UNHCR may be made here.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that are helping refugees from Syria: