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Syrian mercy mission gives Stratford teacher a sense of urgency

July 30, 2018

STRATFORD — Dylan Connor is jet-lagged but also wound up.

Just back from a week-long mission to aid Syrian refugees who are caught in a no-man land between a just lost bloody war and a Jordanian border most can’t cross, Connor wants to keep his promise.

“We can’t solve this, but when you bear witness to it, that is a powerful thing,” Connor said from a suburban front porch where neighbors who walk by wave ’hi” to welcome him back.

Connor wants to make sure the Syrian people he met — including the mom whose son suffered third-degree burns when a bomb fell on their kitchen and the 17-year-old artist in John Lennon-like glasses who refused to be defined by the leg she lost in the conflict — are not forgotten.

“We need to do something to show our compassion for what they are going through,” said Connor.

His “something” was to bring about $9,000 raised through crowd sourcing to provide on-the-spot relief in the form of diapers, food, dental care, a second port-a-potty and toys.

And music.

When Connor, a recent runner-up for Connecticut Teacher of the Year, is not teaching Latin at Bunnell High School, he is usually playing guitar and singing.

“Music changes the room,” he said.

Connor wore his guitar like a backpack, taking it everywhere on the trip. Most places, he sang a song called “Feza, Feza” — which translates to “Help, Help.” It is a song he wrote in honor of the people of Daraa, the city where the recent Syrian revolution began, where his wife’s family is from and which recently fell despite being considered a de-escalation zone.

Connor was already planning to go to Turkey this summer to do art therapy with kids. The fall of Daraa kicked the Syria-American Council — which Connor recently joined — into high gear.

“They said ‘We need to do a mission now’ ... I said I want to go,” said Connor. He ended up leading the mission.

Boots on the ground

Connor, 43, was a finalist for state teacher of the year in 2016, the same year Jahanna Hayes from Waterbury not only captured the state title but the national one as well. The idea of the Teacher of the Year program, Connor said, is that you don’t have to be an administrator to be a leader.

The goal of the July mission was to work with Jordanian people who were helping Syrians. The American educator visited hospitals and gained access to an area called the “free zone,” a buffer between Jordan and Syria that Connor says feels like it is on the edge of the world.

“We were there to tell them they are not alone,” he said.

His group also wanted to hear first-hand from the men, women and children affected by the most recent attacks in Daraa, according to Michelle R. Taylor, a communications consultant for the council.

Connor said he never felt unsafe. His only fear was to not be able to make a difference.

He came back as the council’s mission chair.

Also on the trip was Dr. Talal Sunbulli, founder of the Syrian American Council, and Dr. Zahar Salhoul, co-founder of MedGlobal, which responds to humanitarian crises worldwide.

Taylor said the council has a network of nearly 9,000 members nationally. It is unclear how many are from Connecticut.

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than a half million people have been killed and half of Syria’s 22 million inhabitants have been displaced.

At this point, Connor said, Russia and the Assad regime have pretty much won the military fight. Rebels are surrendering. People by the busload are being removed from their homes to the city of Idlib.

“I am very concerned about what is going to happen to all these people. If I know this regime, they are going to try and kill them all. Like they did in Aleppo,” Connor said.

Before Connor left for Jordan, some 250,000 Syrians had fled Daraa to the free zone. By the time he arrived, he said the free zone held just 200 refugees.

Connor said his next effort — when, he is not sure — will be to lead a mission to support volunteer aid workers who need help with their own trauma.

“They can’t be much use to people they’re working with if they are fried,” Connor said.

To learn more, visit https://www.sacouncil.com/ or https://www.uossm.us/

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