“Songs for Syria” Was Inspired by Tragic Viral Photo

The cabaret fund-raiser will help resettle local refugees.

It was that photo of the boy — the bloodied boy sitting silently in an ambulance in Aleppo, sitting on a cheery orange seat.

Joan Heider, who does PR for a Center City law firm, and her friend Fae Ehsan, who works for the local chapter of a national nonprofit, were sitting in Heider’s apartment, talking about that photo, the one that had gone viral. That had put, yet again, a young face on the horror of war. “We have to do something,” Heider and Ehsan agreed. That’s when Heider’s then-roommate, Act II Playhouse managing director Eileen Cella, came home. “What are you two talking about?” she asked. They told her. She’d seen the photo, too. Everyone had.

“We have to do something,” Heider said again.

Cella thought about it. “I have a theater,” she said.

That was the spark leading to “Songs for Syria: A Cabaret,” the fund-raiser the three women are mounting on Sunday, November 13th, at Act II in Ambler. Jen Childs, the Barrymore Award–winning actress from 1812 Productions, will be performing. So will Rachel Camp, of Arden Theatre and Theatre Horizon, and Mary Martello — “the Angela Lansbury of Philly theater,” as Cella says. And Jake Blouch, who just won a Barrymore of his own and is appearing in Act II’s Mauritius now. Cella hadn’t even met Blouch when she asked him: “Can you help us out?” Who could say no?

“He was so sad,” Heider says of the boy in the photo, Omran Daqneesh. “Just … quiet and sad. He was so shell-shocked, he couldn’t even cry.”

“The image was everywhere,” Cella adds. “You couldn’t escape it. There are so many images these days that we become desensitized. They’re just a flash on our newsfeed. But this felt like more than just a moment.”

“He was five years old,” notes Heider. “The war in Syria has been going on for five years. His whole life has been war. To think of that really rattled me.”

The three women considered donating the proceeds from their cabaret fund-raiser to an international organization. But they also talked about wanting to make an impact in Philadelphia. That’s how they settled on HIAS Pennsylvania, the local chapter of the nation’s oldest international refugee resettlement agency. Its motto? “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.” “It seemed really powerful,” Ehsan says, “to know that the money would go directly to someone who’s our neighbor, or could become our neighbor.”

“Once refugees get out of the war zone,” Heider points out, “everybody thinks, well, they’re out of danger. But when they get here, they have no resources, no family, no community to welcome them.” She was familiar with HIAS from her law firm’s pro bono work for the agency. “HIAS helps resettle people and makes sure they have a place. It finishes the process,” she says.

Cella, an actress and singer who’ll perform at the cabaret, was thrilled with the response from local theater friends she invited to join in the cause. Also appearing on the 13th: Rachel Camp, Caroline Dooner, Elena Camp, Jordan Dobson, Jon Silver, Anabelle Garcia, Rajeer, Andy Shaw, Melissa Joy Hart and Emily Kleimo. It starts at 8 p.m.; go here for tickets, or to donate even if you can’t attend. You know — just in case you, too, saw that photo and thought, “I have to do something” … but haven’t yet.