"Who is he? What's he doing here?" Moe Rabah remembers wondering that day at Lakewood Park.
Rabah asked around and found out that far from being a wayward Swede, the man was raising money to bring gravely ill and injured Palestinian children to the United States for treatment. His name was Steve Sosebee, and though he was only in his mid-20s, he had already developed a reputation for traveling to the West Bank on humanitarian missions.
Rabah was not only intrigued, but moved. "Now here's a guy who's not even Arab, helping these children. How does that make us look?" He was so moved, in fact, that he immediately agreed to house an Arab boy for a year. The boy, who was 12, had lost an arm, a leg, and a foot when he stepped on a mine. In Cleveland, he would be fitted for artificial limbs and receive physical therapy.
"It was an instant decision," Rabah, the owner of Moe's Tires, recalls of that meeting 10 years ago. "We had a duty to do that." Rabah and his wife are first-generation Americans who speak Arabic, but their own kids "only know the dirty words."
"I wanted my children to see how lucky they are, compared to some of our people overseas. Us Arabs that were born here, we really have a guilty feeling in us. "
Since then, he's also installed vending machines in his shops, with the proceeds going to Sosebee's group, the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund. "Everybody says they don't know where Steve's coming from, but I do," says Rabah. "He probably knows a lot more Arabs overseas than I do. Matter of fact, he probably knows a lot more Arabs than I do."
Sosebee launched the organization in 1990, not long after he graduated from college. Since then, he's brought more than 100 children to the States for treatment, as well as sending surgical teams to the Middle East. He and his wife, Huda Al-Masri (a social worker whom he met in the early 1990s in Palestine), live in Kent, but they also have an apartment on the West Bank.
Slender and solemn, Sosebee spends so much time abroad, he actually speaks with a slight Middle Eastern accent, even though he was born and raised in Cuyahoga Falls, where his parents lobbied for fair-housing legislation in their all-white neighborhood. "We had our home shot at," recalls Sosebee.
A political science trip to the West Bank in college cemented his activist inclinations. "I got to see, for the first time, the situation on the ground," he recalls. "Children were being shot. People were being put in prison without trial for months and years. Homes were being destroyed. People were being made homeless as a source of punishment."
Several return trips followed. Back in Kent, he feared for the safety of friends he'd made in Palestine. Wanting to help their cause, he worked as a Middle East correspondent for several small publications, but was soon disillusioned with "sitting at a typewriter, pounding out some essay about illegal settlements."
During one stay, he'd befriended an 11-year-old from Hebron who had lost his legs and an eye in a surprise attack on his family.
"He was such a cute boy," recalls Sosebee. "His spirits were still so high. He was laughing and playing the whole time, despite being in a wheelchair."
When Sosebee returned to the U.S., he showed the boy's picture to an Akron orthopedic surgeon. "He said, 'Well, I know some people who can maybe help him.' Without any experience in bringing a boy here for treatment, we went and did it."
And so a relief organization was born. Much begging ensued. Armed with a sheaf of recommendation letters, Sosebee went right to where the money was -- the Saudi Arabian Chamber of Commerce. There, he was given a list of names and addresses. The first name on the list was the multibillionaire son of the prime minister of Lebanon.
That seemed like a good start. "I waited in his office for about an hour," he says. "We went back the next day, and he gave us a check for $25,000. I said, 'Wow, this is easier than I thought.' Of course, it wasn't. I found out over the years that it's never easy."
Since then, the PCRF has extended its reach to other medically impoverished Arab countries. The children are transported to major hospitals on the U.S. coasts and Cleveland. While they're here, they usually stay with an Arab-American family.
Two of the latest visitors are a mother and baby from Palestine, here for pediatric heart surgery at the Cleveland Clinic.
"This is the second time they've taken a charity case," Sosebee says of the Clinic. "It's good of them, but let's face it; the Cleveland Clinic gets a lot of money from the Middle East. They had the Sheik of Abu Dhabi there for a few months with his entourage of 100 people. And they paid cash. I think it's fair for them to give something back to the poorer countries."
Sometimes the children arrive with a parent, sometimes alone. Their first night in Cleveland is often spent at the North Olmsted home of Tami and Sammy Hamed. The Hameds grew up here, but lived with their extended families in Palestine for a few years. They speak Arabic, and their house is close to the airport, so they're an ideal welcoming committee.
"The first place you stay should be the most comfortable," says Tami, a curly-haired mother of four who also baby-sits neighbor kids during the day. "I tell them, 'Please, get what you want. Cook what you want.'"
Sometimes, the children spend their whole visit with the Hameds. A little girl from Iraq stayed with them for about a month while she was being fitted for artificial limbs. Tami digs up a picture of them under a big elm tree, the girl grinning elfishly in her arms. "She's a sweetie," Tami says. "She stole both our hearts. She fit in right away."
Remarking that the girl's parents in Iraq really missed her, she says, "Toward the end, I started thinking, 'It's not fair for me to keep her for so long.' That was three or four years ago, but we still talk about it like it was yesterday. She would tell me she was gonna come back and be my daughter-in-law. I said, 'Which of my sons do you want?'"
Perhaps there will be peace by then, and they can visit under happier circumstances.
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