From Helping Refugees to Naturalist, Sama Wareh Is a Hijabi of Many Hats

Sama Wareh wears many hats in life—humanitarian, artist, traveler, nature educator, documentarian, author—but none as noticeably as the Indiana Jones-like felt ranger atop her head. The Syrian-American’s style is intentional, with the green scarves wrapped around her shoulders and into a hijab, accentuating the hazel tint of her eyes. But the hat?

“A hawk tried to mate with my head,” Wareh says bluntly. She taught children in Los Angeles about the bird of prey one day when it got a little frisky beforehand. Wareh decided it best to don the hat to avoid his dangerous talons in future lessons, and she has kept it on ever since, adding only a self-woven band around it.

Wareh grew up in OC to Syrian-immigrant parents. Her father studied to become a pilot, and her mom became a fashion designer, opening up her own store in Garden Grove. She attended Orange Crescent School at the Islamic Center of Orange County (where her mom designed the school uniforms). “It made it okay to be different,” she says of her elementary days. When Wareh decided to wear the hijab and go to a public junior high school, being different wasn’t okay. “If people tried to pull my hijab off, I would just chase them down.”

Her family saved up to travel back to Syria every few years. As a kid, Wareh took a particular liking to her eccentric Uncle Ahmad in Damascus. “He was a homeopathic healer, and I was fascinated with him,” she says. And her uncle had a way with animals. “He could go out into a balcony, whistle, and all these birds would come. It was like watching a magician.”

On one vacation, Uncle Ahmad further revealed his wisdom to her. When doctors couldn’t cure a horrible eye infection and cyst she suffered, he stepped in, albeit upset that his family consulted doctors first. “He took some white sage and steeped it in water,” she says. After an eye rinse, the cyst disappeared.

Those formative years instilled a passion for nature in Wareh. Instead of a trip to Disneyland to celebrate turning 10, she asked her mom to go to the park where she could sneak up on lizards before catching them. A young Wareh also began filling up sketchbooks with artwork inspired by National Geographic magazines. Admittedly not the best biology student, she later enrolled at Cal State Fullerton to study film and art, hoping to work with wildlife as a camerawoman for her beloved National Geographic.

Around that time, Uncle Ahmad offered another course of study in folk healing. “I have this big regret in my heart because he asked me to stay with him for a year and learn everything,” Wareh says. She promised to do so the following year, but he passed away before that could happen.

Not knowing what to do with her life after graduation, Wareh came across an ad looking for an animal caretaker for the Orange County Department of Education. When she called, the department offered her a naturalist position instead. “My first day on the job was at Irvine Regional Park, and there was a field trip of kids coming,” she recalls. A co-worker directed her to a white sage plant use station to put up an info card—one that signaled to Wareh that she found her calling. It read that indigenous Tongva and Acjachemen tribes used white sage as eye medicine, just as Uncle Ahmad did.

Wareh returned to Syria as an Environmental Studies graduate student at Cal State Fullerton. She wanted to incorporate what she learned in film to investigate the country’s water crisis, where 12-hour shut-offs became commonplace in Damascus. Her thesis turned into the award-winning documentary Dwindling Drops In the Sand. Wareh proposed using the Orange County Sanitation District’s heralded recycled-water system as a solution for Syria, an idea that quickly traveled to the Syrian embassy in D.C. But then all interest suddenly dropped. She learned years later that the regime opted for a desalination plant instead, a costly and ineffective move propelled by financial gain.

A troubled ecosystem in Syria presaged a dire political one. Peaceful protests demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster during 2011’s Damascus Spring spiraled into civil war. Wareh wasted little time in organizing an art exhibit in Laguna Beach featuring her own Native American and Bedouin-influenced pieces to raise funds for the United Nations Central Emergency Relief Fund. But following the art show, she learned that supplies into Syria were being stolen and sold on the black market. So Wareh decided to head to Turkey in search of refugees herself.

“Everyone thought it was crazy,” she says of her 2012 trip. Backpacking through South America gave her confidence to go it alone, plus she had the perfect cover: “I told people I traveled as an art student.” Carrying two suitcases of medicine meant for Aleppo, Wareh worked her way closer to the southern border. She made connections with refugee families in Turkey during her three-week stay and attended to their most pressing needs. But the farther south she traveled, the more harrowing the journey became.

“I was shaken by everything I saw,” Wareh says. In desperation, refugees climbed over barbed-wire fences. She witnessed the human ravages of war in the form of gashed babies and men with missing limbs. In Gaziantep, Wareh taught art classes to refugee children, watching her students’ drawings slowly turn from gory images to innocent imagination. But that’s as far as Wareh could go. She didn’t dare cross the Syrian border, having been chased by the Mukhabarat, Assad’s intelligence agency, during her documentarian days.

When Wareh traveled to Lebanon later that same year for refugee work, she witnessed the healing power of art again. The humanitarian landed in Beirut ready to help establish Birds of Hope, an education and arts-therapy school near Tripoli. There was only one problem: In Lebanon, refugees aren’t allowed to have bank accounts, leaving them at the mercy of organizations that can have less than their best intentions financially. The principal told Wareh there’d be no school because of corruption, but they quickly found an alternate site that opened to 350 refugee students within two weeks.

“Every day, the kids would come and hand me art pieces, and a lot of them were extremely violent,” Wareh says. She was seeing the same thing she had in Turkey. The most dramatic transformation came from a child who drew a rose drenched with dripping blood. But, “on the last day, he handed me a rose with a sun around it.”

For all the heartfelt moments amid the horror, nothing could prepare Wareh for the refugee crisis she came across when traveling to Greece in January. “It’s the biggest mess I’ve ever seen,” she says. By then, the Assad regime had overtaken Aleppo, fueling a mass exodus from the ancient city. She raised money, bought winter boots, built a cabin for refugees and helped any boats incoming from Turkey to Lesbos.

“One day, a boat came in, and we helped them get out of wet clothes into dry ones,” Wareh says. “The saddest thing is that when they get there, they think there’s a plane waiting to take them to Europe.” She plays a video from her Instagram account panning the vastness of “life-jacket mountain” in Lesbos, where discarded floatation vests are piled by the hundreds of thousands.

She has no time line to go back to help war-torn refugees, but she fondly remembers the children in Greece who saw her hat and called out, “Cowboy! Cowboy!” Wherever she travels, the memory of her Uncle Ahmad and her own humanitarian spirit are never far behind. When Wareh returned from Greece, she sat next to a Lakota medicine woman who told her she had a black aura. Wareh initially thought it a bad thing. “No, no, a black aura is an aura of a shaman,” the woman said. “You’re going to be a healer someday.”

But first, there’s a society at home in need of healing. Wareh landed at John Wayne Airport the same day spontaneous protests took to LAX against President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 “Muslim Ban,” which targeted refugees, especially Syrians. “All these people that are fleeing are not ISIS, they are not terrorists,” Wareh says from experience. “They’ve been victimized by war.”

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