In 2013, Puneh Ala’i snuck inside of Syria, walking into a war zone with a backpack full of crayons and coloring books.
She risked her own life to bring a bit of love and hope to those she felt were unseen, to show that someone cared.
After that life-changing trip, she vowed to dedicate her life to serving others and founded the non-profit For The Unseen , with the mission of providing sustainable solutions to alleviate human suffering worldwide.
What made her leave the comfort of her home to walk into a war zone? What did she see there? What can we do to help?
Back in June, Puneh kindly answered these and many other questions in this insightful and inspiring conversation.
Hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
You are the CEO of “For the Unseen” – who are the unseen?
Everyone that’s unseen, essentially, obviously. My particular focus on the unseen is anyone in developing countries, mainly, because those are the ones that are not seen in the world. And we know that because of Media – as we all know, the Media doesn’t put much attention on certain things that depending on the region or the culture, end up being less of a priority, and I’d like to change that.
I’m trying to make it so that we’re all seen, we’re all known, and we’re all recognized – because we’re all human beings.
You’re very focused on Syrian refugees, right?
Yes, so far, yes. When you sneak inside of a war zone, and you go into a country, and you meet the people, and spend time with their children, and you learn of the culture… you see the suffering they’re going through. Unfortunately, today, that’s the worst humanitarian crisis ever, to have existed. So that’s where I started, and I’m still there. I’ve done other projects as well, but it’s my primary project.
You’re a California girl… when was the eureka moment that you said: “f*ck this I’m going to Syria”?
Well, I don’t think there’s just one moment… there are little things that lead you to this big thing.
I had little things happen – I walked in on my best friend as he was dying, and that was a big breakthrough moment for me.
Another thing was a girl I was very close to told me what was going on in Syria, and she is Syrian. I’ll admit – I didn’t even know where Syria was on the map! So, I thought to myself, “what? People are being treated unjustly?”. For me, lack of justice is…
Is that your strongest value, justice?
And diversity, yes, absolutely. And together, they have to be together.
You have Iranian origins – did that have anything to do with your decision, did you feel connected to the Middle East in any way?
The connection was not even the Middle East, necessarily, although when I was inside Syria, I was able to connect because of the cultural similarities. It was that my parents were immigrants and they fled their country due to a mistreatment. They fled because my parents are Baha’i, and the Baha’i faith is prosecuted every day in Iran, up until even today!
My core beliefs in diversity, oneness of humanity, oneness of man and women… another one is self-investigation of truth – that each of us has to discover what is true to ourselves, what we desire. Those are all principles of the Baha’i faith.
When we met, I asked you why you felt that mission and you told me a lot about service. Does that come from religion, from your parents…?
It’s both – it’s my parents, it’s who they are – they believe in giving to people that are less fortunate, no matter what. I’d say for them is far more of just a part of who they are as human beings, maybe a part of the Iranian culture… also just a part of their story, of their journey. They fled Iran, they went to NY, the way they survived there, the way they went from there to California… so it’s a mix.
And how did they feel about you going to Syria?
That’s a good question! I first told my father. I told him, “Dad, I’m going to go to Turkey, and I’m going to go to the south” – and I didn’t tell many people this then, but I said “I’m gonna help the Syrian refugees”, and I looked at him and he stared at me, and then I said, “and I’m probably going to sneak inside of Syria.”.
He was quiet, he stared at me and he had tears well up in his eyes – and I realized the tears were of joy, of pride!
And he said, “I would do the same thing…”. And then he goes, “don’t tell your mother I said that!”.
And then what happened? You went to Turkey first, right?
Yes, I flew into Istanbul, straight away flew into Gaziantep to the south. We went there because I had a contact there from the Syrian-American girl I was friends with, but when I arrived there… My friend that I was traveling with, Nesrin, she is Syrian-American, she was translating, I don’t speak any Arabic.
We went there, we looked around and I just didn’t feel like it was right. I told her, “tell them we’re gonna come back to continue talking, and we’re gonna go eat”. So we walk out and I’m walking fast and Nesrin says, “what’s going on?”, and I said: “we’re not helping them, they have help – when you were walking ahead, I took a left turn into the building and I went into two different rooms with so much food, so many books, so many supplies… those refugees are going to be fine!”.
I just had this need of going inside of Syria, “we have to go inside, we have to go inside!”.
So we left, we took a bus. We literally asked someone on the street which bus was going south, and a guy said “that one”, and I said “let’s go!”, and Nesrin starts crying, “what are you doing, that’s crazy!”.
Why did you feel that need to go inside?
Because I didn’t believe the Media. Because the Media was not accurate, it’s still not accurate! The Media is never accurate, ever, ever, ever!
What is happening there that we are not seeing? What did you see and you want to tell the world?
Well, for starters, there’s no difference between them and us, they’re just like us, they’re just like you… They wanted their right to have a voice, they wanted to speak, they wanted to be able to vote, they didn’t want a dictatorship anymore.
They wanted to be able to speak openly and freely in their own homes. Something that even someone in my country was defending, Edward Snowden, defended the Americans in that way. It’s very similar if you think about it, it’s strange how similar it is, it’s kind of freaky, actually.
The point is Syrians are no different than us, no different than an Iranian-American, or than a Portuguese person.
They want their right to be free, to do things like this... They couldn’t do this, they still can’t do this, without feeling that someone will come in and kill them...
I snuck inside of Syria 4 times in 2014, did immediate aid, but it’s not sustainable.
I was fundraising and then I would feed many people and then that’s it… one week later they’re like, “hello?”.
We heard of a man in Tripoli who was educated, he had gone to Damascus University, so he was an educated Syrian refugee. There were kids that he had there, he wanted to start a school and he needed our help. So Sama, she went there – we had fundraised money – she went there and helped to establish the school.
In one of your interviews, I heard you say “these kids, they are the future generation, they are millions outside of Syria, so if we don’t educate them in the right way…”
It’s going to become a bigger problem! That’s a big point that most people in the world don’t understand – we think it’s just a Syrian issue… it’s not! It’s a world issue, it’s a world crisis, it’s a humanitarian crisis at large!
Because those kids, if we don’t psychologically deal with the traumas they have endured, there are going to be thousands more not-so-good-people in the world.
How many Syrian refugees are there right now, outside of Syria?
13 million Syrian refugees that are IDP – internally displaced – 8 million are out of the country, the last I checked, it’s increasing every day.
That means that all of those people will be part of our society…
Yes, and we can implement them on a great scale.
We can pick up their strengths, and we can improve their weaknesses, and we can create a better world together.
That’s what you’re doing in your school, right?
I’m trying, yes.
Something I thought was very interesting – you told me you’re trying to build this very democratic education, you wanted the kids to vote for the name of the school…
Yes, it is a democratic approach, focused primarily on equality, and diversity, and mutual respect, and to integrate the benefits of all the things – whether it’s cultural values, religious values, educational values – to bring them all together in a loving way.
I even have trouble helping the school right now, because “the refugees they don’t have papers, so how do I know they’re not terrorists?”
This is the argument I have all the time, not just with people that donate, but with higher people in the US.
How do you answer to those people that are afraid of refugees because they think they might be terrorists?
I show them pictures and I humanize them, I make them real.
So, let’s humanize them – who was the person that impacted you the most in Syria?
Ziyad, this man his name is Ziad. I stayed in his home my first time and every single time that I went.
He has a wife and 3 children, I think he has a newborn, so 4, but I wasn’t around the 4th. He treated me like I was his family, even though I wasn’t. He was amazed, when he met me, he said: “you’re not Muslim, you’re not Syrian, why are you here?” and thank God I know one word in Arabic and I said:
“Because I believe in Allah, I believe in God and I believe that we’re family. You and I, we’re family.”.
He looked at me, still very skeptical, and then this is what it came down to, and this is my underlying principle and belief – I said to him: “I came here because, if something were to happen where I live, in my family, with my mother, father, brother, sister – I have 2 nephews that I love – with my friends and the people I love, I hope to God, to Allah, to the higher powers, whatever you want to call them – if you don’t believe in God you can call them Earth, Universe, whatever – that someone, from another place, would see here and come to serve, come to help, come give a hand.”
I’ll never be disconnected from that village in Syria, and I think about them, and I think about how, one day, maybe I’ll go back and help rebuild.
There was something you said and you got pretty emotional, and I got pretty emotional, you said – “I want to be in those places where no one else wants to be because people there are just more alive than anywhere else in the world.”
Why is that? Is it because they have the threat of death every day?
Their ego is pretty much non-existent or dead. It’s there, I don’t think they’re without ego, but it’s very small, it’s like the smallest ego you can ever get. You know gurus, Buddhists, meditative people…? It’s that small.
And so, there is a sense of awareness of self, of emotion, of connection, of quality time – I didn’t learn this until inside Syria.
They don’t get on the phone, they don’t have phones.
Do they still manage to have good moments in spite of all the pain and all the suffering?
It’s incredible, like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life!
Literally, bombs are falling, and we sit together around a meal that a woman just spent 3 hours making, bent over, uncomfortable, and we just eat with our hands and connect with each other.
On my first trip, a bomb fell near me and I saw things, I came home, I cried and I literally said: “I have to help people like this.”.
What moved you to go from California, where you could have a normal life, to a place where you are so uncomfortable and you know that probably after you’re going to have PTSD and everything… but you still go?
I don’t know… that’s a great question, that’s the best question actually. Because I’ve asked myself. I don’t know what it was, I just had to do it.
Do you feel more alive there?
I don’t know... it was the curiosity, it was my heart saying, “go, go, go”.
Because I knew that this world is not just here. I mean, look at where we are right now [the interview took place in Lx Factory in Lisbon]. It’s so beautiful here, look at the light, look at nature. We can go eat all these great things, we can walk to the sea. But I know there is the opposite. For this to exist, the opposite exists.
Do you believe that for us to have this, someone else needs to be on the other side?
I don’t think that there has to be the opposite in order for this to exist, but the way we’ve been created thus far, up until now, the extremes are there so that we can learn some things.
I think the extremes are ok – and I hate to say that because that means I’m ok with certain things that are happening, like “how does it feel to have the President that you have?”.
I don’t like it, but it’s necessary, in some ways, so that the people that think he’s right can see that he’s not right. Right now, the supporters of this man, I’m telling you, are going “what was I thinking?”. This has to happen in some ways. We have to have this thinking that “this shouldn’t be the case“.
But I don’t think it has to remain this way. I think that we start bridging the gap between these extremes, and we rise up together.
What can we do to help? For those of us who don’t have the courage to walk into a war zone, but that want to contribute in some way?
You can fundraise on your free time – potentially you could do this – purchase tennis rackets and tennis balls, and you could take off one week of your time, instead of going on vacation to that amazing island in the south – Mallorca, Ibiza…
Which I don’t say don’t go at all, you can go to those places! But you can spend a week and go to a refugee camp in Jordan, in Greece – there’s many of them – and you can spend a week teaching them how to play tennis.
And it will not only… those kids will forever be impacted, they will never forget you. They will... I’m going to cry... they will never forget you!
You will always be in their hearts, and you will teach them something they will never forget, and you will connect with them on a level that they don’t get to have.
You touched a point there when you said, “you can still go to Mallorca and Ibiza”…
When I read Angelina Jolie’s book about her work in Cambodia, she said that when she came back and she had to go to this red carpet event, she felt so out of place and so ridiculous. But at the same time, you still have the right to also have those good moments.
How is that with you, did you feel that? When you go back to California, do you feel guilty or displaced?
My first trip, 2013, I felt guilty, so much guilt! I tortured myself – intentionally, unintentionally, subconsciously, unconsciously… whatever. And then, one of my mentors who I love, Sammi, said to me:
“How can you give from your cup if your cup is empty?”
“And if you continue to deplete your cup – how can you do this work for the rest of your life? Do you really want to make an impact? Do you really want to do something sustainable? In order to do something sustainable for others, you have to sustain yourself.”
How do you fill your cup?
Well, the first thing I said to you when I got here was “I’m so sorry I’m late, I’m hungry.” Before, I wouldn’t have done that, so that’s one example.
Learning meditation and yoga. Being comfortable, wearing comfortable attire when I can and when I need to. 2 days at the conference [Horasis Global Meeting] I was dressed not professionally. Usually, I wouldn’t do that, I’d put the heels and put the make-up on and be uncomfortable, but now I don’t! Because I have to take care of myself and I have to be who I am.
Just finding ways to check-in with yourself, check-in with your breath, check-in with your heart.
How does your family deal with it when you go away? And how do you deal with knowing they are worrying about you?
That’s very difficult… My sister was pregnant my first time I went inside Syria.
She would take my hand on her belly and be like, “you have to come back, you understand? He only has one auntie!”.
So that was hard.
It’s a challenge, I’m human. And I do have an ego too, I am selfish – I asked for this bowl [of açaí] before I wanted to be interviewed. I was being selfish. But it’s required, because if I didn’t do it, maybe I would’ve been not as nice during my interview. I would be a grumpy person sitting here.
There are ways, always, to do things. And it’s a circle, you know – what goes around comes around.
That’s a great way to end! Thank you so much.
Yes, thank you guys, thank you.
All photos are the property of Puneh Ala’i and For the Unseen.
Thank you for reading!