Couple devises DIY method of getting critical medical supplies into Syria
It was midday in China, early morning in Syria and dusk in Los Angeles — time for Philip and Tamar Koosed to get to work.
Each night in their San Fernando Valley home, they say goodnight to their children, Asher, 3, and Itzhak, 1, then turn to a do-it-yourself operation that is saving lives daily halfway around the world in Syria.
With no staff and virtually no overhead, they have stitched together a network of doctors, suppliers and shippers to send medical aid to the war-torn provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.
Working from a wish list provided by the doctors they work with, the Kooseds source the goods either from Chinese factories or in-kind donations from medical companies. In just more than a year, they have moved more than $20 million in medical supplies, working from their home office in Sherman Oaks.
The need is unrelenting. Now in its sixth year, the Syrian civil war has displaced some 12 million people and trapped hundreds of thousands more in war zones. Idlib and Aleppo have been the sites of intense bombing by the Syrian government, which uses munitions designed to maximize civilian casualties. Throughout the persistent conflict, humanitarian groups have faced a gamut of obstacles, from cities besieged and choked off by militants to a government that allegedly targets medical workers intentionally.
“Our focus is extremely narrow,” Philip said. “How do we provide doctors with lifesaving medical supplies, medical equipment and save as many children as possible?”
The couple’s own children are a major motivation for their work.
“There’s not a time in which I see an image of a 3-year-old and I don’t see my own 3-year-old,” Philip said, sitting nex to Tamar in their living room, “or see a 1-year-old being pulled from the rubble and think, ‘That could be my own son.’ ”
“It’s so transparent that we’re just lucky,” Tamar added. “Like Asher and Itzhak were born to us — but they could have been born in Aleppo. It’s just pure luck.”
‘Two naïve Jews from the Valley’
Philip described their effort as “two naïve Jews from the Valley, trying to save the world in Syria.” The reality is more complex.
Philip, 34, grew up in the San Fernando Valley before co-founding what would become a multimillion-dollar supply-chain management firm while he was an undergraduate at USC. Tamar, 33, runs a consultancy that assesses the impact of social investments by nonprofits and businesses around the world. They didn’t know it at the start, but their skills and contacts were well-suited to saving lives.
By June 2016, the couple, who met at USC, had made donations to aid groups in increments of $50 or $100, sometimes more, but they remained largely aloof. “We actively chose to be numb,” Philip said. “I think you kind of have to do that to a certain extent to live.”
The onslaught of horrific images from Syria began to weigh on them. It became the subject of their bedtime conversations, night after night.
Philip and his business partner recently had sold their supply-chain management business for $30 million — though Philip still is the company’s president — and the couple was looking to make a onetime sizable donation and move on with their lives. But they were underwhelmed by their donation options.
“You see Doctors Without Borders, and you see the number of [medical] kits they’re able to send into those areas, it’s something like 800 kits they’re able to get in,” Tamar said. “You see that they’re having a really difficult time.”
With Philip’s manufacturing contacts and Tamar’s involvement with humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), they figured they could do better. They hatched a plan to reach out to doctors in Syria to assess their needs, then build a supply chain to meet them.
“Anybody else that would have come to me and said, ‘So, we’re starting to send medical supplies inside of Syria,’ I would have looked at them like they had three heads,” said Mike Brand, director of programs and advocacy for Jewish World Watch (JWW), an Encino-based anti-genocide organization.
Brand had worked with Tamar over the years and was impressed by Philip’s background. Unlike multinational humanitarian organizations, the couple had no red tape or bureaucratic delay to deal with.
“A lot of bigger NGOs don’t have the ability to find locals and just have them take care of stuff,” Brand said. “It’s just not how they operate.”
The couple got to work. By March, less than a year after they started, trucks rolled from Turkey into Syria bearing banners with the name of their fledgling organization, Save the Syrian Children, depositing medical supplies in hospitals across Idlib and Aleppo.
Call for support is answered
At first, most of the work for Tamar and Philip was vetting doctors and hospitals in Syria thoroughly to make sure they were who they said they were, and not the likes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the jihadist group known as the Al-Nusra Front. “There are a lot of bad actors in Syria,” Philip said.
Finding doctors on the internet or through Tamar’s contacts, they cross-referenced each of their identities with sources inside and outside Syria.
Once they had vetted the doctors and assessed their needs, the next step was to build a supply chain from China to Syria. That was the easy part — building supply chains literally is Philip’s job. “It’s what I do every day and what I have done for the last 17 years,” he said.
For the first six or seven months, they didn’t think about how they were going to pay for the supplies they were shipping. By December, the goods were being loaded onto a 40-foot shipping container in Shanghai.
“The goods were about to ship, and we were like, ‘OK, we’re $100,000 on the hook, we better start talking to people about this,’ ” Tamar said.
They put out the word, with Philip’s sisters helping on social media. They didn’t know what kind of response they would get.
“To a person, everyone said, ‘How can we help?’ ” Philip said. “I guess it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was surprising.”
His network at Stephen Wise Temple proved to be of particular help. Philip had attended the day school there — it’s where he first met the co-founder of his supply-chain business — and his parents were longtime members of the temple.
At a synagogue event a few months after the Kooseds’ plan began to take shape, Philip and his father ran into Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback. Philip told Zweiback what he was working on.
“I was just really blown away,” the rabbi said.
The Kooseds were looking for a fiscal sponsor, a nonprofit organization that could accept tax-deductible donations on the couple’s behalf and channel the money into buying more supplies. In rabbinic school, Zweiback had started an organization called Kavod, whose purpose is to funnel money from donors to qualified charities. It was exactly what Tamar and Philip needed, sparing them precious time in obtaining nonprofit status.
“If they had to wait six or 12 months to do this, that would mean four shipments they couldn’t make,” Zweiback said. “And that would mean children that can’t have access to basic medical supplies.”
Zweiback helped the Kooseds put an appeal in the temple newsletter. Soon, word of their activism spread beyond the synagogue.
This month, JWW finalized a grant to allow the couple to ship a container of medical goods to Syria on its behalf.
“Nobody has called Syria a genocide per se yet, but it certainly has moved in the direction of the most horrific violence,” said Susan Freudenheim, JWW’s executive director. “We don’t want to take sides in this; we just want to help save lives.”
Though Freudenheim declined to provide the dollar amount of the grant, she said it was enough to fill a 40-foot container with supplies, slated to be filled and shipped in July. She said JWW was attracted to the project because of its low overhead, the cut-rate cost of goods Philip is able to acquire and the couple’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“We’re talking about the equivalent of a garage band,” Freudenheim said. “These people are very, very devoted to what they’re doing.”
The couple also reached out to their professional networks.
Sue Chen, CEO of Carson-based Nova Medical Products, heard about the couple’s work through an email they sent out to members of the Santa Monica Bay chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization, a business networking group.
“I wrote them [back] at 2 o’clock in the morning because I just couldn’t wait,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep, and I was like, ‘I have to be involved.’ ”
Nova specializes in products that help people with physical challenges or disabilities maintain independence and mobility. In April, two containers donated by Nova left the port of Long Beach with canes, wheelchairs and crutches, along with thousands of items of clothing and canned food donated by the company’s employees. The shipment was expected to arrive this month.
“Thousands of people are dragging themselves around to get from point A to B to try to somehow go on with life, and I have products that are sitting here right now that could change their entire world,” Chen said. She told herself, “I’ve got to get this product over there as soon as possible.”
Working with ‘real heroes’
Tamar was born in a small city in Brazil, where much of her family still lives. She communicates with them through WhatsApp and Telegram — the same technology she uses to talk to doctors in Syria.
Each morning, after working well past midnight, the couple gets up with their kids at around 6:30 a.m.
“I wake up to messages from my family in Brazil and from doctors in Syria,” Tamar said.
Their long nights have begun to pay off for people in Syria. Their first shipment, distributed to 28 hospitals in Idlib and Aleppo, included 200,000 surgical masks, 800,000 pieces of gauze and 150,000 surgical blades.
Each step of the shipping and distribution, from crossing the Turkish border to ripping open boxes in hospitals, is documented carefully at the couple’s request. They also ask doctors to shoot video testimonials about the materials they receive.
“We hope that you continue to support us, as it is impossible for us to get medical supplies as we are trapped here in Idlib,” one doctor, who asked to remain unnamed for security reasons, said on video after receiving supplies from the first shipment.
After a gas attack in April that killed dozens of people, the Kooseds launched an emergency appeal and outfitted hospitals in the war zone with hazmat kits to keep doctors safe as they treated patients who might carry the residue of harmful chemicals.
The requests have become more specific and complicated as doctors have grown to trust the couple, and vice versa. The Kooseds have shipped X-ray and electrocardiogram machines, costly medications and a cranial drill for neurosurgery.
Dr. Omar, a neurosurgeon in Idlib who asked that his surname not be used for security reasons, said in an email to the Journal, “The hospital I am working in now has received a lot of the lifesaving medical supplies. These supplies also have been delivered to about 30 hospitals in the area of Idlib province. Philip and I have been working on special orders for brain surgery and other special surgeries, as well.”
In total, the Kooseds have delivered five shipments, with another three en route and two more planned. They estimate their aid has amounted to more than $21 million worth of goods. But the couple still feels that their work is merely a footnote to the heroic daily efforts of the surgeons and other medical staff they work with in Syria.
“We’re trying to help real heroes on the ground and real victims,” Philip said. “That’s all we’re really doing and, I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel special. It’s something that anyone can do. The first step is just doing something.”
For more information on Save the Syrian Children, go to SavetheSyrianChildren.org