Sami Zayn wanted to see the pictures, but he didn't know the impact they would have on him until they hit his inbox last week.
Two months ago, Zayn started "Sami for Syria," a fundraising campaign aimed at raising $48,000 to launch a mobile medical clinic in Syria through SAMS (Syrian American Medical Society) and keep it operational for six months. The donations came in quickly and Zayn reached that goal last month; he then doubled the objective to $96,000 to make the clinic operational for a full year, or potentially open two clinics for six months. The initiative's current total sits at almost $69,000.
A big chunk of that money has already been put to work, and with the first mobile medical clinic up and running, Zayn asked SAMS if he could see photos of the work that was being done.
When he saw them, one of the WWE's biggest stars couldn't help but stare at the images and cry.
"That's when it really hit me," Zayn said. "A lot of work went into it, and it almost felt like work and I lost touch with the fact that we're really going to help people, and when I finally saw those pictures it made me pretty emotional. These are actual people that we're actually helping. It really made it real."
Zayn's voice began to crack as he thought about all the children now getting help in war-torn Syria because of the money that was raised over the past two months.
"It's making me emotional now to even talk about," Zayn said. "This conflict has been going on for so long now, and these kids have been born into this. It's so sad. They don't know any different, while some of them that are older remember their house, which was blown to bits, or loved ones that are gone or they're separated from. It hits you a little more when you see the kids. I don't see how you could see these pictures and not be affected."
Zayn, whose real name is Rami Sebei, is a Syrian Muslim who speaks Arabic fluently. His parents immigrated to Canada in the 1970s before he was born in 1984, but he has many family members who are still living in Syria. He knows he could have easily been one of the kids in those pictures if his parents hadn't immigrated.
"If my parents didn't come to Canada in the '70s, I probably wouldn't be living my dream to be a WWE superstar," Zayn said. "There's a good chance it would be me and my children stranded under the rubble, or floating in the Mediterranean Sea, or whose home was destroyed, or whose loved ones are being displaced or killed. That could very well have been me if not for a decision my parents made years before I was even born. That gives you a reality check in terms of how close that was to being my reality."
While Zayn has actively followed what's happening in Syria for years, simply being up to date on current events ceased being enough in today's political climate when he considered his platform as a WWE superstar with over 1 million combined followers on Twitter and Facebook.
"Your priorities change when you get older," said Zayn, a Canadian citizen with permanent resident status in the U.S. "The conflict has always hit close to home, but what do you do? You do the same thing everybody does. You watch the news and say, 'God, that's awful' and you move on because you have to get through the day. But you get to a point where you ask yourself, 'What am I really doing here?' Nothing gets done just because you think that's awful. I felt powerless, but the truth is we all have the power to effect change and do good things."
As much as Zayn doesn't want to make his fundraising campaign a political statement, it is impossible for him to ignore what is going on around him as he travels the country as a Muslim, the son of Syrian refugee parents with a brother who was born in Syria, following an executive order by the president to suspend the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S. as part of a travel ban that affects refugees and citizens of seven Muslim countries.
"I made it pretty public that what was happening really pissed me off," Zayn said. "That hit me personally because it was shortly before WrestleMania and my parents were going to come see me in Florida, they actually haven't been here since I've lived here, and we find out that my parents, who are Canadian citizens but were both born in Syria, may not be allowed in the country. Tell me how that wouldn't infuriate anybody. That was very personal to me."
While Zayn has made his views on what is happening in the country clear on social media, he realized a tweet can only do so much and wasn't likely to change anything. So he decided to make an impact and launched this fundraising campaign with SAMS, a non-political, non-religious medical relief organization.
"In these divisive and really negative times that we're living in now, it's not about saying something but doing something positive," Zayn said. "People will respond way more to that than putting out a political opinion. So I'm doing this and people have asked me what the end of the road is for this. I really don't know. I don't think there is an end because there's not an end in sight for these people, so why should there be an end in sight in trying to help them?"