Surrounded by ashen ground, dead trees and cars with blown-out windows and melted paint, Khaled Khatib paused for a selfie last year to document his trip with the American Red Cross to aid victims of Yuba City, California’s wildfires. The sober expression of the man in the photo seems uncharacteristic of the 65-year-old whose uninhibited laugh resonates throughout the dining area of Fresh Thyme Farmers Market in Westlake now.
Khatib, a retired machinist, joined the Lake Erie/Heartland Chapter of the American Red Cross as a volunteer in early 2016. In the aftermath of wildfires in California, he provided shovels and brooms to people whose homes the fires leveled.
He recalls first encountering the devastation left from the blaze that scorched nearly 20,000 acres over three California counties. “When I see all that, my legs, they don’t hold me anymore,” says the Syrian immigrant whose English is still a bit broken after more than 30 years here. “So much emotion.”
His work in Yuba City came just a few weeks after Khatib had worked 12-hour shifts for more than two weeks to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey at shelters in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. This year, he followed up those efforts by distributing supplies to people afflicted by a flood in Cincinnati, comforting Richmond Heights residents whose apartment complex caught fire and providing shelter to Hurricane Florence victims in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“You give money, $100 or $1,000, and you forget about it the next hour,” Khatib says. “When you give a few hours from your time to comfort that person or that family, that’s worth a lot of money. That’s how we feel. That’s how I feel.”
Born into a large Syrian family, Khatib had eight brothers, five sisters and a grandfather whose name he never learned. To this day, he explains chuckling, he remembers him only as “grandpa.” When Khatib was about 30, he moved to Cleveland with his brother. “Then I create my own life,” Khatib says.
Seeing people in desperate situations throughout his life has prompted Khatib to help those in need. After moving to Avon Lake 25 years ago, he carried a boy who had slipped and gashed his head at Veterans Memorial Park to his family nearby. Less than a decade ago, he joined a human chain to rescue a drowning man at Edgewater Beach.
Khatib says he doesn’t consider himself a good person. “I cannot judge myself,” he says in earnest. “You have to judge me!”
But others see his kindness and generosity as traits that help define him.
“I cannot express how privileged I feel to work side by side with these folks,” says Lara Kiefer, executive director of the Lake Erie/Heartland Chapter of the Red Cross, who joined the organization in March 2016. “They are the Red Cross. He is the Red Cross.”
At home, Khatib participates in local Red Cross activities, walking in parades and educating people about its projects.
In the fall, he spoke about the Red Cross at Cedar Point, as the organization hosted an active shooter drill. And every Monday and Wednesday, Khatib volunteers for Sound the Alarm. The smoke alarm installation and fire safety education campaign began in 1992 with the Cleveland Division of Fire and expanded nationally in 2014.
“We’ve documented about 500 saved lives across the United States,” Kiefer says.
For Khatib, some of the most rewarding experiences have also been some of the toughest, like sheltering people after Hurricane Harvey. Many people were too proud to leave their homes and arrived at the shelters with only the clothes they were wearing.
“I ask them, ‘How’s your house?’ ” he says. “They say, ‘I’ve been rescued from the helicopter. They came and picked me up from the top of my roof. We had to leave everything.’ ”
He has trouble getting the words out thinking about those impacted by these natural disasters. Sometimes he laughs with them, sings with them or cries with them if he feels — knows — that that’s what they need.
“That’s not my job — but that, actually, that’s something from your heart,” he says, clutching at his chest.