In April 2015, the Karam Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, launched its fifth Innovative Education mission for displaced Syrian children and youth. Karam’s team of more than 40 international mentors worked with upward of 400 Syrian students from four schools in grades 1–12, leading workshops that included entrepreneurship, arts, language, sports and yoga and providing full dental/vision clinics and screenings.
The following is an interview with the founder of Karam Foundation, Lina Sergie Attar, about her organization’s efforts to bring hope to displaced and refugee Syrian children in Turkey, many of whom have been traumatized by war and have missed out on an education.
It is part of a series of posts about the Karam Foundation mission, told in the words of its mentors. These offer a glimpse of what it is like to work on the Syrian border, sharing personal stories of extraordinarily talented and resilient kids and reminding us that Syrian children are more than the world knows, more than the world lets them be. They are #NotInvisible.
The Syrian conflict has created the worst humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. Yet in the midst of despair and destruction there is hope for a brighter future. This series is dedicated to our unwavering hope in the next generation of Syrian kids. We hope the stories will inspire you to action.
Syria Deeply: Why did you create Karam Foundation’s Innovative Education Program for Syrian children? How has it evolved over time?
Sergie Attar: In the beginning, we thought that our work would be short term, only to realize that the war wasn’t ending and the refugees weren’t going home, so we began to think of long-term solutions that would have a lasting impact on displaced children living in Reyhanli, Turkey.
While the brutal living conditions of displacement severely affect all Syrians, the children are the ones who bear the most trauma of war, and many of these kids have now been without access to an education for several years and have lost hope.
The first program we launched was Zeitouna, a creative therapy and wellness program for displaced Syrian children in Reyhanli. It seeks to counter these traumatic factors by rebuilding bonds with the mentors we bring in twice a year to Turkey, who run workshops that focus on rekindling inspiration and creativity, restoring confidence and reclaiming the innocence of childhood.
Following the success of Zeitouna, we created a new program called the Karam Leadership Program, KLP, which is designed for Syrian youth, grades 10–12, with a focus on technology and entrepreneurship. We created the program because teenagers came to us after they saw the work we did with the arts therapy workshops the previous year and asked why we weren’t doing anything for the older students who were about to graduate. They told us they needed a future, just as many students of their age needed to go to university.
With this in mind, the Karam Foundation built a complete computer lab equipped with 22 computer stations including two video-editing stations, internet access, projectors and a printer. Our mentors, including a group of successful entrepreneurs, business leaders and technology experts from Jordan, led two missions with a group of Syrian high school students, with workshops focusing on: team-building technology; journalism and media; product development and e-commerce; basic business/entrepreneurial skills; video editing; introduction to educational online searches and resources, etc.
At the end of the second five-day workshop for 40 of the young people, 14 Syrian kids were offered tech jobs with ShopGo, Mohanad Ghashim’s (KLP’s Entrepreneurship mentor) company. The kids will use the computer lab that we built to work for ShopGo. They will get paid fair wages for their work, which is incredible news.
Syria Deeply: How do you choose your programs and the activities you offer the kids?
Sergie Attar: Our programs are driven by the mentors themselves. The connection and inspiration that the kids feel toward the mentors also affect the workshops.
Our goal is to bring the outside world to our kids, especially because many of the Syrian refugee children in Reyhanli feel very isolated and secluded from the rest of the world.
We have had people come from as far as Australia, the U.S. and Europe to host workshops and spend time with the kids. We also bring Syrians to the workshops from all walks of life, men and women from different religions, towns and backgrounds. We all look different, but at the end of the day we’re all Syrian, and it’s important that the kids are reminded of the diversity of our country.
Right now, there’s a huge gap between the kids’ reality and their dreams. The reality is that these kids are doing manual labor and working at very low-paid jobs, but their dreams are to become doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers etc. And, unfortunately, the kids know that this gap between reality and their dreams exists. We aren’t claiming we can close that gap, but we can at least help them understand that there’s a whole other world out there that they can access using the internet and technology, and by bringing a global network of people to them. We want to open up their world every time we visit them.
Our hope is that these programs can help build future leaders of Syria, if the kids ever go back, and/or create global citizens who can help change the communities around them.
Syria Deeply: How are kids surviving in the current conditions? What are some of the challenges they face?
Sergie Attar: A big problem we’ve found is that many Syrian schools in Turkey are under-funded. Many teachers are actually now working without salaries. Everybody’s exhausted from the situation; the status quo that hasn’t changed in years, including for parents, teachers and the kids themselves.
The kids don’t ask about the world outside Reyhanli anymore, which is a notable change in mindset that has occurred over the years. When we used to visit the kids two years ago, we would always get the question, “Where’s the world? When is this going to end?” They don’t ask us those types of questions anymore. They’ve settled into their reality and don’t ask about when the world is going to step in. Their situation doesn’t feel temporary anymore, so it’s very important that we go back and spend time with the kids, to let them know that people still care and that we haven’t abandoned hope. Many of the younger children just need attention; they want people to be around them and look them in the eye, to make a true connection.
Most of children are urban refugees living in appalling and cramped conditions that people aren’t meant to be lived in, like storefronts, warehouses and basements. Some of these kids have lost parents, siblings or relatives and many of them are forced into child labor in order to provide for their families.
It’s impossible for kids to go to work and school at the same time because of the grueling work schedules. Even though most of them would rather be in school, they are expected to work six or seven days a week for 12 hours so that their families can make a living and survive.
We visited the family of one of the children in our programs. Her name is Iman; she lost her father before the war and her home in Aleppo was destroyed two years ago. After being displaced several times, she now lives in a storefront with her mom and three teenage siblings who were all working 12 hours a day to support the family.
Our team visited this family over the course of week. We all noticed that they were working extremely hard, but what they really wanted was to go to school.
We intervened and offered to pay the family what the kids made from their wages, with the promise that the kids quit their jobs and go to school. We were able to send six children to school this way.
Syria Deeply: Have you seen changes in the kids since you began working with them?
Sergie Attar: We absolutely see changes in the kids. Their parents tell us that they are walking differently, speaking differently. Teachers tell us that they’re asking more questions, more curious. They’re more confident.
We always go back to see our kids, even if it’s just to say hi. The kids remember us and now they know that when we say we’re coming back every six months, we really are coming back and we haven’t abandoned them. We’ve had many cases where kids send us notes and letters and remember specific details about their workshops. We have found our programs have a long-lasting effect.
Syria Deeply: Can you give me an example?
Sergie Attar: We strive to expose our kids to people from outside Syria and activities they may not have experienced before. Last summer we introduced the kids of Salam [Isalmic] School to Danny Postel, Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. Danny taught the middle school girls how to play basketball. The summer before it would’ve been unheard of for girls to play basketball at the school, even though we had built them a basketball court. This year, Kinda Hibrawi [Karam’s Director of Education] and I sat down and watched a complete girls’ basketball game. The girls built a team, have a coach, and now they play basketball all the time. There are many stories like this one.
Syria Deeply: How has the organization grown with time and experience?
Sergie Attar: We’ve grown a lot as an organization. We’re still almost completely funded by individual donors and don’t have access to grants or large sums of funding, but over time we’ve learned how to work in these kinds of conditions, which has actually helped us grow to be more efficient and impactful. Karam functions like a family — with very personal connections with the people we work with. We’ve had an amazing chance to see the kids blossom.
We have advantages as a small organization because we can afford to take the time to visit families just like Iman’s multiple times over the course of one week. No matter what kind of projects we are working on, our priority is always to listen first, and learn from the communities themselves on how to help them in the best way possible – we call this Smart Aid.
We’ve gained enough experience to build a sense of community across different teams in different schools with big groups of kids. This is largely because we return to the same place several times a year and have developed relationships with the kids, the teachers, and even the local community.
Syria Deeply: What are your next steps as an organization?
Sergie Attar: Our next move as a foundation is to create a Karam House in Turkey so that we can offer our programs year round for the children of Reyhanli. It’s really important for us to offer our programs to Turkish children as well as Syrian children because we want them to coexist as one community. We are encouraging the Syrian kids to learn Turkish. We have hired a Turkish teacher to teach the high school students so they can apply to the Turkish University scholarships that are offered by the government. It’s really important for these kids to be able to integrate and learn Turkish because it opens so many opportunities for the refugees.
It’s been over four years since the conflict began and many Syrian youth have been left behind without access to proper education. Thousands of kids who were entering high school when the conflict started should have graduated by now.
I’ll always remember a boy in the 7th grade who approached me during one of our workshops and said, “Four years may not be a long time for you, but four years for us is a lifetime.”
The longer we wait, the more human capital we’re squandering. We can’t afford to wait any longer and we can’t abandon this generation of Syrian youth.