NASHUA — In a warehouse on a cold spring night, volunteers heaved boxes from a truck parked in one cargo bay to a 40-foot shipping container in the next.
A woman in a sea-green hijab helped lug the last of the boxes out and swept the truck floor clean. Another truck, packed to the ceiling with boxes, was waiting to pull in.
She hopped onto the platform, long skirt brushing the tops of her black Pumas, and called out to the crew to unload the next truck even faster.
“They need to leave in five minutes,” she said. “My God, this is a crazy house!”
Not long ago, Nadia Alawa spent her time home-schooling her eight children in East Hampstead, N.H., ferrying them to soccer practice and robotics competitions and volunteering commitments. But as revolution exploded into civil war in Syria — the native country of her husband and her father — the crisis reordered her life.
“This was my cause,” the 44-year-old Alawa said. “I couldn’t stop.”
With little more than a computer, a cellphone, and a knack for getting people to help, she created an international relief agency out of her house. In the last two years, NuDay Syria has sent 53 shipping containers packed with medical supplies, clothing, food, and toys to conflict zones in northern Syria.
As her network has grown and requests for help have poured in, Alawa has also raised more than $1 million to help Syrian women and children in other ways. NuDay paid for goats smuggled into a besieged area near Damascus to produce milk for babies. It has found housing and work for Syrian refugee widows in Turkey. This month, the organization opened a school for refugee children there.
Her new life is nothing Alawa could have foreseen in 2011, when the regime of President Bashar al-Assad’s of Syria cracked down on protesters, and when Facebook, where Alawa liked to post family photos and banter with her older teens, became a window on a pitiless war.
Aiding a devastated area
Syria, now in its fifth year of armed conflict, is crumbling. Jobs are scarce. Access to medical care is poor. A generation of students has lost years of schooling. Travel is dangerous.
The fighting has displaced more than 11 million people. Two-thirds of Syria’s population needs emergency relief assistance, according to the US Agency for International Development. But most international aid agencies have pulled workers out of Syria because of security risks, said Jill Goldenziel, a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Conventional wisdom in the international aid field says that sending material goods to disaster areas is inefficient, that food, clothing, and basic medical supplies should be bought nearby to cut shipping costs and support local economies.
Joel R. Charny, a vice president at InterAction, an alliance of large US-based relief and development organizations, has preached this philosophy for years. But in Syria’s case, he allowed,direct aid can make sense “if the stuff is usable and needed, and they can guarantee it gets to vulnerable people.”
The intensity of the war is unrelenting, said Rae McGrath, the country director for Mercy Corps in north Syria and Turkey. “There are virtually no areas where you can go for a week without some level of bombing or artillery attacks,” he said in an interview from Ankara last month.
Under such circumstances, he said, large aid groups such as Mercy Corps must focus on distributing lentils and rice and other basics families need to survive. Sometimes, he said, smaller relief groups can furnish specialized items such as medicine or little luxuries — a child’s bicycle — that lift spirits.
“And we can’t do that,” McGrath said.
Alawa’s organization, NuDay Syria, is a member of the American Relief Coalition for Syria, an alliance of US Syrian relief organizations that works collectively to deliver aid in large ways and small; many of these groups are run by Syrian-Americans. When he last traveled to Syria on a dental mission, Dr. Omar Salem, an orthodontist and leader in two such groups, brought a dozen suitcases bulging with antibiotics, allergy medication, and dental equipment.
NuDay is increasingly focused on sustainable aid projects such as opening its school and helping refugee families become self-sustaining.
Dr. Hazar Jaber, a Syrian-American who lives in Washington state, has collaborated with Alawa on many of these efforts, including assisting Syrian refugee families with seriously ill children. NuDay’s approach, Jaber said, is to first address urgent needs — food, clothing, housing, medical bills — and then to help them find a way to earn a living.
“We want to teach the families to stand up on their feet,” she said. The philosophy, she said, is to “empower people so they can help themselves.”
Alawa believes that sending containers remains worthwhile. Shipping costs are low compared with the value of the cargo, she said. And physical goods, she said,can be a bond linking American donors to Syrians, reassuring those in the war zone they are not forgotten.
“One person at a time, one humanity closer” is NuDay’s motto, and it is how Alawa keeps herself from feeling overwhelmed or hopeless.
“This is my project,” she said. “I can touch it and I can feel it and I can see the result, and that’s all I’m going to worry about.”
Suvada Arnautovic, 31, a NuDay volunteer who lives in Manchester, N.H., spent several years of her childhood in a refugee camp in Slovenia after her family fled the Bosnian war. Pausing as she sorted clothes at the Nashua warehouse, she recalled the day long ago when aid workers handed her a box off a truck that seemed “as if it was made for me.”
“It had kid stuff for school, sweets, clothes, everything,” she said. “Notebooks. The goodies kids like.”
An effort bigger than herself
Raised in Denmark, Alawa converted to Islam as a teenager and married her husband, Aiman, in Syria. They lived in Japan, New York state, and Massachusetts before moving to southern New Hampshire a decade ago. Aiman, an engineer, runs a small solar energy business in Woburn.
Alawa, who has a degree in pedagogy, devoted her 20s and 30s to educating her children. Syria’s crisis began as her oldest children were leaving home.
“I think my mom has always wanted to do something bigger than herself,” said Laila Alawa, the oldest child, who is 23 and runs a digital media startup she founded in Washington, D.C.
When Assad’s forces brutally attacked antigovernment demonstrators in 2011, Nadia Alawa was outraged — and sickened by their torture and murder of a 13-year-old boy. She forced herself to study the macabre photos on Facebook documenting the ensuing violence.
In early 2012, she learned that one of the Syrian antigovernment activists she admired, Danny Abdul-Dayem, would be testifying before Congress. Perhaps, she thought, she could get him to speak in Boston.
“I spent, like, three days calling, calling, calling,” she said.
She organized an event at Harvard. About 200 people came, contributing $17,000 to benefit Syrians, she said.
The crisis became Alawa’s obsession. She felt a strong kinship with women and children caught in its midst.
She set up rallies, organized a fund-raising dinner for a Syrian aid organization, and began assisting Syrian families, inviting help from the many friends, home-schooling parents, and other contacts she had accumulated over the years.
In December 2012, she volunteered to collect a container’s worth of clothing, food, and supplies for another aid group and gathered enough for 2½ containers. An Islamic school that had donated space had to close for a day because the donations took up so much room, she said, and it took a nearly round-the-clock effort to get everything sorted and packed.
She filled three more containers within weeks, and, using a network in Turkey and Syria assembled over the previous months, they were delivered inside Syria.
She concluded, though, that she could operate faster and with fewer headaches on her own. And so she started NuDay.
“I don’t like bureaucracy,” Alawa said, “and I don’t like a lot of talking.”
NuDay volunteers collect donations in mosques, churches, and clinics across New England. They sort and pack the items into shipping containers and send them to Turkey, where a NuDay employee drives them to the Syrian border. Syrian partners pick up the goods and distribute them in areas of northern Syria controlled by rebel groups — and never in regions under the sway of the Islamic State or the Assad regime, Alawa said.
The US government has rules governing humanitarian aid for Syria to ensure it does not end up in the wrong hands. NuDay, a registered nonprofit with an export license, keeps detailed packing lists for each container, Alawa said, and stays in contact with the US Treasury.
The work involves considerable risk. Syrians who deliver the aid face air attacks, roving militias, and roads littered with unexploded ordnance. Islamic State militants forced one NuDay team to flee to Turkey, Alawa said.
Alawa is constantly on the Internet, interacting with her network here and overseas. And she sees everyone she runs into as a potential helper.
“I’ll say to a friend, ‘So, what do you do?’ They’ll be like, ‘I’m a doctor, I work at this hospital.’ ‘Oh, can we get free medical supplies, can you go ask?’ ” she said. “And in 30 percent of the cases, people will go ask.
“I’m not really being friendly,” she said, laughing. “I’m trying to see how you’re going to fit into my patchwork.”
Alawa’s patchwork was on display at the warehouse in Nashua. A Syrian-American college student heaved boxes alongside a family friend who secured free space for NuDay at his company’s warehouse.
Anne Webber, a 58-year-old volunteer from Portsmouth, met Alawa at a vigil Alawa organized for journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by militants.
“She is obviously a religious woman, but at the same time, she’s free, and she’s loud, and she’s funny,”Webber said.
Alawa is also a perfectionist.
“At 10 o’clock at night, she’ll be like, ‘Didn’t you see the bike?’ ” said Alison McKellar, a 30-year-old mother of two from Camden, Maine, who collects donations on her porch. “She’ll be frantically going through the bags, ‘Make sure this gets on.’ ”
As a woman running a nonprofit, Alawa is unusual in the Muslim Arab-American community, and she has faced hostility, her daughter Laila said.
It can be lonely, Laila Alawa said, but, “My mom draws her energy from the fact that this isn’t for her.”
And Alawa finds satisfaction in relying on women to help. One day, she recalled, she had to unload a 26-foot truck at her house. It was raining, and only her family and a driver were there. She gave a shout-out on Facebook; those who raced to the rescue were women, some with young children, one pregnant with twins.
Alawa still home-schools her five younger children, but they make dinner most nights and help with NuDay’s work.
Laila Alawa worries that her mother pushes herself beyond exhaustion. Nadia Alawa shrugs off such concerns. But she fears for her collaborators in Syria, people she knows only through Facebook and Skype. She dreams they will all meet one day, after the fighting ends.