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What can we do, Dad?

It was just before Christmas and the Jarecke family of Joliet was distraught about the safety of their extended family in Syria. Family members have been kidnapped and one was killed.

They posed the question to their father, Ken Jarecke, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist who has covered the Gulf War and 10 Olympic Games, in addition to photographing the people of Syria where his wife, Souad, was born.

Ken Jarecke said their fear has grown to the point that they don't mention Syrian family members by name, fearing for their safety.

Souad immigrated to the U.S. with her parents and siblings when she was 3. She is a naturalized citizen of the U.S., but she has close relatives in Syria, where 250,000 have died and 7.6 million have been displaced since 2011.

Since the Jarecke children, ages 16 to 22, were raised so far away from their mother's homeland they wanted to send help. Jarecke's agent suggested a fundraiser featuring Jarecke's portraits of Syrians, many of which were taken on Jarecke's last trip there in 2006.

'I can smell the mist'

Ken Jarecke

Joliet photojournalist Ken Jarecke shot this man diving off an ancient water wheel in Syria.

One stunning photo showing a man diving off an ancient water wheel into the Orontes River evokes strong memories of a beautiful place that may no longer exist.

“I can smell the mist. The water wheels create a mist and I can smell that,” Jarecke said.

Jarecke wrote this about the image: "Young men ride these ancient water wheels, known as norias, and either jump or dive off, depending on their level of skill. It's quite a show and many come to watch the spectacle as the sun goes down."

Jarecke got help selecting the 12 collectible prints he is offering for sale at a price much lower than his usual rate. They are available at jarecke.bigcartel.com. In just over a month, Jarecke has almost reached his goal of raising $25,000 for Syria. Individual archival prints signed and printed by Jarecke are $185 or you can purchase six for $810.

The Jareckes have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for their fundraising effort. Huffington Post recently wrote about it.

“It’s surprising in a delightful way. It’s different than just getting likes on Facebook or Instagram — it’s people making an investment to bring these photos into their homes,” Jarecke said.

Ken Jarecke

Photojournalist Ken Jarecke took this photo of a boy with his camel near the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria.

One photograph of a young boy leading his camel in the ancient city of Palmyra had never been printed before Jarecke put it up for sale  in December, 2016. That photo is one of the most popular in the series.

Jarecke wrote this about the image: "I'm not sure what remains of this ancient city. To me, it was a true treasure. As a kid growing up in Omaha, Palmyra was what I imagined the exotic Arab world to be."

Showing empathy

Ken Jarecke

Syrian youngsters made swings out of wire.

Another photo shows a group of children sharing swings made out of wire, tied around a low-hanging tree branch.

Jarecke said he tries to convey his empathy for every subject.

"You need to capture the image so the viewer can recognize themselves in it. Without empathy, the images have a very short shelf life."

Jarecke is still offering the prints for sale, but he is not actively promoting the project because he's been both appreciative and overwhelmed with orders.

The money is being donated to International Orthodox Christian Charities, which is helping supply clean water, food and medical care in Syria.

Some people have mailed in donations without asking for a print and a church in Chicago contacted Jarecke for assistance in sending a representative and money to Syria.

The Jareckes stay in touch with their Syrian relatives, mostly on Facebook. Jarecke said the relatives tell them things are getting better in Syria, but he suspects they are putting a positive spin on a dire situation.

He wants to return to Syria, but he fears it will be hard for Souad to get back into the country.

'Treasure of my life'

The Jareckes moved to Joliet in 1992, and the Jarecke children attend Laurel High School, Rocky Mountain College and Montana State University. 

On Jarecke's first trip to Syria in 1993, he and Souad visited one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world, Our Lady of Saidnaya. A nun whispered to Souad that she was with child. Nine months later, their first child, Shadya, was born.

Now 22 and a student at Rocky Mountain College, Shadya has helped promote the Syrian prints.

"I am so proud of my dad. He's one of the most compassionate people I know," Shadya said.

Jarecke and Souad met in the 1980s when they attended the University of Nebraska in Omaha. In 1989, Jarecke moved to New York to work for Life and Time magazines. A friend suggested that Souad get in touch with Jarecke so he could show her around New York.

For their first real date, he left Beijing where he was on assignment to photograph the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which led to the June 4, 1989, massacre.

“I called her and said, ‘It’s my grandma’s birthday. Maybe you can have dinner with us.’ Her sister said, ‘He’s calling from China, you have to say yes.’ I left China to make this date and I didn’t even tell my editors I left. I upset a lot of people, but I got the greatest treasure of my life — my wife.”

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Entertainment Reporter

Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.