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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Grassroots Support for Syrian Refugees

Ryosaku Sugishima

Mar. 3, 2017

A Syrian man living in Japan is reaching out to people in his native country who have been displaced by the civil war.

The conflict has uprooted more than half of Syria's population. More than 1 million people have applied for asylum in Europe, and nearly 5 million have become refugees in neighboring countries.

Mazen Salim came to Japan from the Syrian capital Damascus 12 years ago. He runs his own business in Toyama Prefecture, and hasn't been back to his home country for more than 6 years because of the civil war.

"Some of my friends told me I miss you, I want to meet you someday,'" Salim says. "Sometimes I send a message, but the reply will come after one week or 10 days. Of course we are too worried about that because in this week, what is happening, what is going on, why's there no answer? Maybe everybody's dead, something wrong has happened."

Salim is a representative from the Toyama Muslim Center, a mosque in the city of Toyama. Even when he is offering prayers, he can't stop thinking about Syria.

"Of course we are really worried about families over there because we have no other choice to contact them directly. We cannot go, we cannot check anything," Salim says.

He and other Muslims in the area have been sending aid supplies to refugee camps for the past 2 years. They've shipped goods like clothing, blankets and wheelchairs on 6 occasions, and the supplies include donations from people all over Japan.

"Of course every one of us must feel his duty to help others," Salim says. "I'm Syrian, so all Syrians are my family, so of course I feel the duty to help them."

Last December, Salim and volunteers of a non-governmental group he works with visited Antakya in southern Turkey, near the border with Syria, to see firsthand how the refugees live.

"Why did you come here?" Salim asks one woman there.

"My 6 children were killed in the war, so I fled the country with my grandchildren," the woman replies.

She has been living in a tent with a sheet for a roof for more than 4 years. She is there with her grandchildren, and they struggle to survive every day. One of her grandchildren has a digestive disease requiring regular treatment, which is something she's unable to provide.

"There's no sugar, no tea, no shoes for the children. We receive aid supplies, but not enough. We can't even buy what we need," she says.

About 400 refugees live in the camp, including many children who can't go to school. Salim was deeply troubled by their situation.

"Of course most important is children. They are growing up in the camp. They don't know anything," Salim says. "When they are playing, they are playing war games. When they are talking, they talk about war. When they are hearing from the parents, actually parents are only talking about the war -- nothing else," Salim says.

Back in Toyama, Salim held a meeting to report what he'd seen at the refugee camp, and he announced a plan he came up with after returning to Japan.

"I want to build a school. I promised them. I'll do anything to make it happen," Salim says.

He plans to build a school that can accommodate about 100 children in a refugee camp in southern Turkey by September. Salim wants the refugees to know that people far away in Japan care about the Syrian children.

"We're happy to provide support in building a school," says a member of a local volunteer group.

As Syria's civil war rages on, Salim is determined to provide the children with hope until the day peace prevails.

"Of course we should open for them a new choice, a new channel, a beautiful way to study and build a new Syria, to make a new future, a beautiful future. Otherwise they will go the wrong way," he says.