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The Syrian refugee crisis has been driving headlines around the world for the past year, as over 4.5 million people have fled to neighboring countries to escape the war in Syria. While the brunt of the crisis has been felt in Europe, it has popped up in U.S. politics as well, with figures like Donald Trump and Gov. Rick Snyder calling for a ban on Syrian immigrants.
Heba Osman and Ahmad Elkhatib, graduate students in MSU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, felt that not enough was being done locally to address this international humanitarian crisis. The duo started a campaign called Letters of Love, where locals can write letters of hope and love that will be sent to Syrian refugees.
The spark for the project came when Osman, a Canadian citizen of Egyptian descent, came back from a humanitarian trip that provided medical care for Syrian refugees in Jordan.
“I went with the Syrian American Medical Society to Al Zaatari refugee camp and other places in Jordan,” Osman said. “We provided them with medical care. A lot of them don’t have any money to see a doctor, money for medication — they don’t have money for anything.”
The shock of what she saw in the camp really sank in when she came back to the U.S.
“I don’t think anything hit me when I was there,” Osman said. “When I came back, everything started hitting me. Ahmad talked about wanting to do something for Syrian refugees, so that’s where Letters of Love was born.”
The campaign has a twofold purpose: raise awareness around the Syrian refugee crisis and raise money to help fund schools for refugee children. Osman and Elkhatib believe that education is the best opportunity for refugee children to build a better future for themselves and their country.
Participants to the campaign are asked to write a letter and include a small donation — $5 for students and $15 for faculty and community members. The letters will be translated to Arabic and read aloud to children between the ages of 6 and 15 years old in Al Zaatari refugee camp. The monetary donations will go directly to Al- Rahba Children Project, a nonprofit organization in Mafraq, Jordan, that aims to build schools for Syrian children. Project organizers will cover the cost of getting the letters and donations to Jordan.
While Elkhatib had been thinking about ways to help Syrian refugees, seeing Osman’s response to her trip is what really set things in motion.
“For the first week, she was zoned out,” Elkhatib said. “She was shattered and shocked at the circumstances that people have to live in. She felt that whatever she did there wasn’t enough.”
“We were just giving them a Band-Aid,” Osman added.
For Elkhatib, who is now an American citizen, what is happening in Syria hits close to home.
“I am of Palestinian descent, but I was born in Lebanon,” Elkhatib said. “I always thought I was Lebanese until when I got older and noticed my passport said ‘refugee’ on it.”
There are an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, with a majority living outside official refugee camps. The United Nations Human Rights Council has 600,000 registered refugees in the country, and about 83,000 of those live in Al Zaatari camp. Living conditions for refugees in the camp are hard, and refugee children are the most vulnerable.
“They do have schools there, but they have around 20,000 children,” Osman said. “There is only space for half of them to go to school.”
Syrians who live outside of refugee camps don’t have it much better.
“In the morning the Jordanian children go to school, and in the afternoons they switch over and the Syrian children go to school,” Osman said. “But sometimes there isn’t a school nearby and you need money for transportation. A lot of the mothers, they wouldn’t eat so that they could afford to send their kids to school.”
Participants are asked to send letters and donations to Letters of Love, 965 Fee Road, Room C101 East Fee, East Lansing, MI 48824. As of now, there is no cut-off date for receiving letters.
Osman and Elkhatib created the Letters of Love campaign as a practical way for Americans to help a crisis that at times seems impossibly large.
“There are a lot of people who want to help with the Syrian refugee crisis, but they have not figured out how to help,” Elkhatib said. “This is one way to help.”