Lina Sergie Attar never imagined she would end up working to alleviate suffering in the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time – or that the crisis would be happening in her homeland. She grew up in an environment of giving, as a child watching her father dedicate his life to helping Aleppo’s disadvantaged citizens. When she left the city in 1998 to study architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design at MIT, she still felt a longing for the charitable life she left behind in Syria. So in 2007, she co-founded Karam Foundation with the goal of finding ways to give back to local and international communities.
At first, Karam Foundation, which gets its name from the Arabic word for generosity, worked on small projects, like helping with Iraqi refugees in Boston and supporting microfinancing projects for women in Africa. But with the outbreak of civil war in 2011, the foundation shifted its focus to providing aid for displaced Syrians.
When at the end of 2012, Attar and her team visited an internally displaced peoples (IDP) center outside of Aleppo, she met hundreds of Syrian children who were no longer able to attend school. The conflict has left 1.7 million Syrian children without access to education. The widespread need for schools in IDP and refugee camps inspired Attar to expand the support Karam Foundation gives Syrians to include education programs for refugees.
Women & Girls spoke with Attar about the work Karam Foundation is doing and how its education program has helped train over 3,500 Syrian girls for a better future.
Women & Girls: What is life like in Aleppo for women and girls today?
Lina Sergie Attar: We have been watching the evacuation [of Syrian civilians and fighters from rebel-held parts of Aleppo], which is not really an evacuation: It is forced displacement, the eviction of tens of thousands of people.
It is estimated that up to 100,000 people were taken from their homes, put onto buses and taken into opposition-held areas for them to be able to access humanitarian aid. We are hearing from women on these buses that people are freezing to death, they are without water, food or even bathrooms. Imagine you are a mother who has lived under bombs for years, then in a besieged city for the past few months, and then you are forced to leave your home and everything you have. And [then] only being able to take the belongings that you can carry, spending a few nights on the streets of Aleppo and then being held on a bus for many hours without food, water or bathrooms – and then transported to IDP camps where you are left in no man’s land.
So being a mother, being a women, being a child in these circumstances is truly devastating. And their nightmare when they are settled has really only just begun, because they have joined the millions of other internally displaced people.
Women & Girls: What type of future is there for Syrian women and girls?
Attar: The future is really bleak. We have been watching people becoming internally displaced for many years now, and they are living in tents or caravans. They are lucky if their children go to school, there are no employment opportunities and they become dependent on humanitarian aid.
There is a lot of pressure on girls because they are not able to continue school. Families often become dependent on girls to care for younger siblings so that the parents can work, to take care of injured family members, or to enter into early marriages. We have seen it all.
The saddest part is that when we are working with teenage Syrian girls, they are so bright and so motivated, their dreams are so huge. We meet with Syrian refugee girls who dream of going to university and really being something, but their actual reality is that they will never able to access these dreams. We are watching the dreams of Syrian girls die.
Women & Girls: A lot of your work at Karam Foundation focuses on providing technology training and entrepreneurial mentorship to Syrian teens. What inspired you to focus on this?
Attar: Originally, our education initiatives were focused on elementary school-age kids, and then one day we were confronted by a group of high-school girls who asked us why we weren’t doing these kinds of programs for them. It was really interesting to see these girls demanding that we think about their futures as well. So we started a mission to focus on Syrian refugee teens which provides them with technology and entrepreneurial classes.
The technology aspect of the program is really important for girls because it allows them to access the world in a way that they would otherwise not be able to. Having access to a worldwide community allows these girls to learn and develop new skills which will be valuable for employment. The internet also allows them to find employment opportunities that can be done virtually. For instance, we have a journalism workshop program where they are learning how to become storytellers – they are living in one of the biggest conflicts of their time, and we want to help them tell their story. We have had some of our students go on to full-time journalism jobs.
We found that these kids [in the education program] are hungry for extra inspiration – so hungry, in fact, that we are opening Karam House in January, where teens can access computer labs, libraries, science labs and all sorts of courses where they get to use the latest technology and learn from mentors.
Our tag line for Karam House was created by Sarah, a Syrian refugee girl: “I have an idea. I can build it at Karam House.” That is what Karam House is, a place where teens can come with a dream for their futures, and together we can make that dream happen.