Good news has been sparse for Syrians since the beginning of their civil war. Last year, the United Nations estimated that over 400,000 individuals have died in the six-year conflict. Adding to this, on January 27th, President Trump turned his back on Syrians fleeing persecution. Yet amongst the turmoil, there is a small glimmer of hope. In the absence of state leadership, foundations and NGOs from around the world have chipped in to help remedy the problem of intense suffering in Syria. Today, The Bull & Bear highlights the efforts of one such organization: The Syrian Kids Foundation.
The Syrian Kids Foundation is a Canadian charity that offers free education, counselling, and social relief to Syrian Refugees to address the region’s ongoing humanitarian crisis. The foundation provides funding for the Al Salam, a school for Syrian refugees in Turkey, and sponsors exceptional graduates for resettlement in Canada. The organization also coordinates a tutoring campaign that allows students in Montreal and across the world to tutor students in Turkish refugee camps over Skype. Technology is shrinking the world, and McGill students are a part of this positive change. To accomplish these goals, the organization relies heavily on volunteers from the McGill community and donors from the Montreal area.
“My sister told me, ‘you have to set limitations’… [but] even at 11 pm I am texting my supervisor,” Ati Shohoudi Moidehi reminisced on her experience working at the Syrian Kids Foundation. The PhD candidate in Human Development is one of the fifteen McGill student-volunteers who have put their education to work on behalf of the organization.
Recently, Ati was lucky enough to say, “My favourite student will be here.” She enthusiastically described her student’s efforts maintaining, “He was really motivated to learn English.” Two of her pupils have seen their journeys take them from the Al Salam school to Concordia University. According to Ati, “One is going to be an engineer, the other is going to be a doctor.” The future engineer, Mohammed, arrived in Canada on December 20th and has begun his studies at Concordia University.
In March 2013, the extremist group Daesh, also known as ISIS, overtook Mohammed’s hometown of Raqqa, making it their headquarters. While the the city had previously been a hub for revolutionaries, it now sits as an extremist stronghold and remains an elusive target for the US-led military coalition.
“First, when I fled from Syria to Turkey, I went to Maraṣ. I was there a couple of months, but there were no schools over there,” Mohammed stated matter-of-factly. He continued to describe his experience saying, “I had some relatives in Reyhanli who said that there are schools opening for Syrians, so we moved to Reyhanli.” The Al Salam School enabled Mohammed to continue his schooling with the same Syrian curriculum. In this environment, Mohammed was able to learn physics, math, chemistry, biology, and English – even while his world was being turned upside down.
Despite his tumultuous journey, Mohammed earned one of the seven scholarships given to Syrian refugees by Concordia University. The Syrian Kids Foundation provides room and board to allow the teenagers to focus on their education. These acts of generosity are made possible by Canada’s world-leading refugee resettlement program that allows private groups, like the foundation, to sponsor refugees.
“It was my last year in high school,” Mohammed recalled, and “it was very different than the school I went to in Syria, … it was much better.” He cited the teachers as the main reason for the better education because “they really wanted to help the students, and they worked very hard for that.” The school is one of the few that provides a good education to Syrian refugee children. Unfortunately, however, the situation continues to be critical, as the Al Salam School keeps over 1,000 students on its waitlist due to a lack of resources.
In terms of his own efforts, Mohammed is very humble. Ati, on the other hand, insisted that he works very hard. Hard-pressed about his work ethic, Mohammed admitted, “I spent eight to ten months preparing for the TOEFL.” A year ago, he hardly spoke any English. Now he speaks well enough to study at an Anglophone university.
With limited funding and an unceasing war, very few Syrians have been provided with the same opportunities as Mohammed. In that respect, he is a very lucky person. By allowing tutors to educate from across the world, the foundation has empowered individuals like Ati, and is expanding the number of students who are given a chance to attend university.
Ati is a supervisor at the Syrian Kids Foundation, and she specializes in helping teenagers like Mohammed learn English in preparation for the TOEFL exam. The exam enables students from around the world who score high enough to be admitted into English universities. As a volunteer, Ati’s responsibilities are broad-ranging – from supervising tutors, to designing the curriculum, to teaching students. Her project requires a lot of help to achieve its brilliant results, and has 23 volunteers helping a group of approximately ten high school students.
The tutoring program emphasizes a bottom-up approach that adjusts its strategies and lesson plans to best match the talents of individual students and tutors. According to Ati, the organization prides itself on“a culture of respect and friendliness.” She knew as soon as she got involved that she “was working with [her] friends.” After over a year of tutoring, she insists that the same statement holds true.
Ati makes no effort to hide that many of these accomplishments were in fact incredible. She notes that “most of [The Syrian Kids Foundation’s] students are taking the TOEFL [exam]… because they do not have their passports,” which were often lost or destroyed in the haste of leaving home. Students at the Al Salam School face great difficulties, having seen the impacts of war firsthand. Pupils have often lost their school, their family, and their home, yet they still commit themselves to learning. Ati concedes that “it takes a lot.” The students “at least have to study five hours a day” to achieve the results Mohammed did.
Fortunately, the organization’s success is breeding more success. The foundation has been given an invaluable boost by creating role models that its current students can look up to. It also makes the jobs of tutors and teachers easier when they can remind current students that the alumni were “at the same school, with the same tutors, working with the same materials,” as Ati remarked. Because trailblazers have shown the way, the journey becomes a little bit more certain for every subsequent student.
You Can Help Too
There is no question that the success of Al Salam and its students are impressive on several fronts. Its students have overcome great personal hardship and worked extraordinarily hard to succeed at an exam, the TOEFL, in their third language. Their success is possible because of the hard work of administrative volunteers, like Ati, and of tutors, like the fifteen McGill undergraduates. The generosity of the foundation’s donors also enables student success: Donations help fund the school and the relocation of Syrian refugees.
Despite having worked so passionately with the school, Ati has yet to visit it, but hopes to do so one day. The Syrian Kids Foundation allows its volunteers to make a profound impact without needing to leave their living rooms. This is the brave new world we live in, where we can forge relationships, make friends, and provide life-changing opportunities from eight time zones away.
At the end of our discussion, this columnist asked Mohammed, “What’s been the biggest adjustment since moving to Canada?” Confidently, he responded, “I’m getting used to everything, but the main difference is the weather.” The co-founder of the Syrian Kids Foundation, Faisal Alazem, then chimed in asking, “Are you happy?” Mohammed replied with a million-dollar smile and said, “Yeah, it’s really nice to be here.”