HELP SYRIA’S KIDS: SHARING HOPE AND EDUCATION
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela.
We live in a broken world where refugees are not protected. Today more people are being unwillingly displaced from their homes than at any time since the end of the second world war. This forced displacement is overwhelming and behind each statistic, there are thousands of children that have been ripped from their homes and their lives.
More than 6 million Syrians have left their home in the last years. Only in Lebanon, there are over 1.5 million Syrian refugees, living in informal makeshift camps. It is difficult to imagine the challenges and daily struggles that these families face, but despite their trauma and loss each day they have a new dream thanks to small organizations that are trying to improve their situation.
World Kids is a place for change, kindness, and hope, and we want to acknowledge the extraordinary work done by individuals and organizations that are changing our world. Today we travel to Ketermaya ( a small camp in Lebanon that shelters 350 refugees, including 140 children and 25 orphans) and meet Danette Gorman, Executive Director and founder of Help Syria’s Kids, an organization that is making a true change in this camp.
Help Syria’s Kids is transforming Ketermaya into a healthy living environment for these refugees, providing children with non-formal education courses in English, Arabic, Social Sciences and Math., as well as aid for food and basic needs. They have also established a pen-pal letter exchange program that nurtures reading and writing skills for these children while sharing hope through the development of a friendship with American children.
If you believe that one person, one small community, can make a big change in our crazy world, then you are going to love our interview with Danette Gorman.
World Kids: The Syrian refugee crisis is overwhelming, so, first of all, I would like to thank you and acknowledge the great work that your organization is doing. You are the founder of Help Syria’s Kids. What made you found this organization?
Danette Gorman: I was working at a film festival in New York City, March of 2017 and had a short break. I had scanned the films showing at this festival and a film called, KETERMAYA stood out. This was a documentary film about Syrian refugee children living in a hilltop settlement in Ketermaya, Lebanon. I was very intrigued to learn more. I entered the theatre and sat down; what I saw on screen changed my life. The filmmaker, Lucas Jedrzejak chose to tell the story from the children’s point of view – I felt like I knew the children and that I had been there before, and I needed to get there. It was a profound experience. Although I was pretty well traveled at the time, I had never been to the middle-east. This was not straightforward logistically, but the calling lead me 100%.
In addition to providing food and a healthy environment for these children and families, you are also very involved in their education. What can we do to avoid this “lost generation” among Syrian children?
Education is the answer. The Lebanese public school systems have started to provide afternoon programs for Syrian refugees which is an important step but not ideal. There are no kindergarten programs or education for children under 6 years and many children 6 and above do not attend the public schools for varying reasons. Teachers are already tired from their packed day with the Lebanese public school children. The most sensitive and profound challenge is the Syrian refugee children are entering the public schools at varying aptitudes as a result of being removed from their school programs in Syria. As an example, this can result in a 12 year old child entering at 3rd grade level. You can imagine, this can be demeaning for a child who is already enduring incredible trauma and psycho-social challenges.
I have been collaborating with the American University of Beirut to provide immediate resources in terms of educated, scholarship student volunteers to operate non-formal programs for the children. My goal is to hire tutors to work with the children 6 and above to help them catch up to their age levels and start to persevere in public school programs and to provide kindergarten and pre-school programs to help the under 6 year old children gain needed education and psycho-social support so they have a chance at entering public schools aligned with their age levels. Another important priority is gaining the trust of the parents. This is something I have achieved over 5 visits to their settlement, spending time with the families, bringing donations of food, clothing hygiene and programs to make the children smile…the parents need to support education and see there is hope for their children. Most of them do, but it is important they trust my efforts and in many cases I have watched them initially disagree with an opportunity but when I speak with them (through a translator of course) they say, OK, we will try. This trust is very important to me and I will do all I can to maintain it.
The fine arts are commonly used as a means of therapy for trauma. Could you please tell us more about your extracurricular program and the role that art, music, and dance play in the personal recovery of these children?
I would love to. I partnered with the Lebanese American University in January of 2018 as one example to align with their IMAGINE Workshop and Concert Series program founded by Seba Ali who is a professional pianist and on faculty in the department of performing arts and music at the university; this invites professional and often world-famous musicians to the university in a residency to mentor university students but also provides civic outreach programs. We have had 3 guest musicians visit the camp and enabled a program where the children were able to attend an LAU concert event learning a song by a professional music coach and sang on stage for a beautiful, packed theatre at the Lebanese American University in February of 2018. This will repeat every year, so we will start rehearsing the program in the coming months.
Through this relationship, I was introduced to another tremendous organization Sounds of Change that deals specifically with refugee children – with an objective of training teachers with tools and programs to help ease trauma and provide expression for children. They lead a workshop with the children inspired by our letter program, we featured this song at a Children’s Human Rights film festival in Bursa, Turkey in May of 2018 – and have the song featured on our website: www.helpsyriaskids.org
We have engaged guest artists to do beautiful work with the children such as recycling trash from the settlement to create art as well as dance and music workshops from students this past summer and a guest musician from the Lebanese Philharmonic.
I am fascinated by your “Letter and pen-pal programs”. I love that these programs inspire education and create global awareness among children. In World Kids, we truly believe in the power of global unity and education. Will you expand this program to other American cities?
Absolutely, we already have 7 schools involved in the letter program and it is growing.
Any plan for international schools all over the world that might be interested in taking part in these programs?
We also have one group in India. This program will be a profound step towards education of language but also importantly to inspire transformation and easing of trauma for all of the children, who participate. I emphasize all children, because there is trauma and suffering of children worldwide. I believe there is no purer connection than that of children, and that through this – and the inherent vulnerability they so courageously exude, true transformation may be achieved.
More than 5 million people have fled conflict in Syria, but it seems that the Syrian refugee crisis is no longer mentioned in the media. Are we forgetting them? How can we help these displaced families?
I believe education in terms of awareness and economic impact of refugees to the country where they reside must inspire thoughtful and peaceful opportunities. Economies need workers to do jobs, refugees need income to survive. Governments need to embrace the demand for more jobs, educate about these opportunities to place them and create and enforce policy so that refugees may be considered for these roles along with the citizens of their own countries, peacefully and productively. I recognize this is not straight forward.
Knowing that your work is making an impact in the lives of all these children must be rewarding. Would you mind sharing with World Kids the most remarkable moment you have experienced with Help Syria’s Kids?
I have experienced pure love. When I arrive at the camp now, they leap into my arms with no hesitation the minute they see me after months of time has passed; they have faith in me and believe I will always come back and am always working to help them. We give each other hope. I will continue to do all I can to help them achieve their greatest potential in their lives.
How can we support your organization?
Spread awareness so that others who may have a desire and means can support our efforts to realize a path for these children to be the future contributors of a more peaceful, kind, loving and productive world. Kids, parents and teachers can also form Pen Pal clubs to let these refugee children know you care. See how on our website www.helpsyriaskids.org
Thank you Danette for sharing with World Kids the amazing and inspiring work of your organization.