WATERLOO --- Syrian Dema Kazkaz Masri left her country 16 years ago on her own terms. Her family eventually moved to Waterloo for a work opportunity.
She longs to return to Syria for a visit but unrest in the country prevents her trip. It's been several years since she set foot on Syrian soil.
"For me, that is so hard. I just feel that I am getting exiled because I am not able to go to my country," Masri, 33, said. "This is a forced exile that I am living."
Masri and other Syrian friends scattered across Iowa wanted to do something tangible to help people affected by the turmoil. The Syrian conflict has cost lives and forced families to seek refuge in nearby countries.
Her sister, Sedrat Al-Montaha Kazkaz, recently left Syria to escape the unrest. She is a senior at West High School in Waterloo.
Praying and donating money to relief efforts just didn't seem like enough, said Masri, a Muslim who is earning a master's degree in Muslim-Christian relations.
"We wanted to do something physically, to feel we are really helping our people and the Syrian refugees," Masri said.
Masri sent out a few emails, made a few phone calls and hoped her plea for donations might yield a few bags of clothes for Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Turkey. She decided to partner with a community-based organization in Texas that can ship goods overseas.
In just two weeks, the contributions that flooded into the Masjid Al Noor Waterloo Cedar Falls Islamic Center from Cedar Valley residents and other Iowans are enough to fill a semi trailer, Masri said. Muslims, Syrians, Christians across Iowa --- friends and strangers --- offered to help.
A truck is scheduled to make its way to Texas this week, "inshallah" --- which translates from the Arabic to "if God wills it" --- with the shipment to arrive in Turkey in March, Masri said.
"I want to thank every single person for volunteering, sorting," she said.
Conflict erupted in Syria after the government tried to quell a popular uprising in March 2011. Violence and unrest continue to threaten and displace civilians. Casualties are hard to calculate; however, the United Nations reports thousands are dead.
More than 728,000 people have fled Syria with little more than the clothes on their backs to seek safety in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Up to 5,000 arrive daily, of which 78 percent are women and children.
"People are already suffering," Masri said. "There is no food. There is no bread. There is nothing."
Last week, the women at Masri's mosque worked quickly and efficiently to fold, stack and organize clothing. The imam's wife, Samira Rasidagic, helped coordinate and recruit assistance from the Bosnian community, Masri said.
A wave of Bosnians resettled in Waterloo as war refugees in the 1990s. More have come in the years that followed.
"That's why we are willing to bring clothes, because that's how we were brought clothes," said Zemka Murgic of Waterloo.
A native of Bosnia, she had to move to Croatia and settled in the United States in 1997, which seems "not so long ago," Murgic added. She empathizes with Syrian refugees, who may have only the clothes on their backs and are facing the winter in a tent.
"I think it's very hard for them. Very hard for them. I know how to be a refugee," Murgic added.
Samira Rasidagic, who moved to Iowa last year when her husband became imam, or prayer leader of the Islamic Center in Waterloo, helped with the clothing drive by contributing money, time and assisting with communications.
"Our religion teaches we should be to other people the way we want other people to do to us," said Murgic, translating and paraphrasing for Rasidagic.
Murgic said Rasidagic wasn't surprised by a successful project.
"She said she thinks it's going to be like that because she's believing in people," Murgic said.
A quilting group that meets at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls offered up 11 quilts for Syrian refugees, said member Hazel Messer. Most of the 150 or so quilts produced by the church ladies each year go to Lutheran World Relief, but the recipients are the same --- people in need.