Tune into any news source and expect to be bombarded by images of destruction and tragedy, both from natural disasters and manmade humanitarian crises. Expect to read the numbers of people killed, the numbers of people fleeing their homes, and the numbers of towns decimated by hurricanes or bombs. While these hard and fast facts are quick to be outlined in a rundown of the day’s events, media outlets tend to leave out the stories of the people affected by such emergencies.
Aneeb Sheikh, MCAS '20, sought to change this narrative when he joined Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD), a humanitarian and relief organization that provides aid to people suffering from emergency situations across the globe. This past summer, Sheikh spent eight days in Jordan with 16 other young men, visiting, offering assistance to, and learning from Syrian refugees. Through the UGBC Student Initiatives program, on October 10, Sheikh gave a talk on his experiences entitled “Syria: Extending a Helping Hand."
“A lot of what we hear about the Syrian refugee crisis is just numbers and statistics, and more often than not we forget the faces and the voices of the people who [comprise the data],” Sheikh told The Gavel. “The main reason I decided to go was because I wanted to get in the thick of it, expose myself to [the issue], and hear firsthand what’s going on so I could bring the stories back.”
HHRD runs an annual trip to Jordan through its Youth Empowerment Program, bringing students and young professionals to the cities and refugee camps in need of aid. Trekkers spend time with refugee families and orphans, sitting in their homes and learning about their experiences. All throughout, the goal in mind is to take this newfound knowledge home and use it as fuel for activism. According to Sheikh, following the trip he and his group remained "empowered to raise awareness and money, and to make people more informed on what’s going on [in Syria]."
Traveling between HHRD-sponsored schools, refugee camps, and other centers, Sheikh met and formed connections with mainly women and children, considering most Syrian men have been killed in the conflict. Providing love and support to the people they encountered, the group’s presence reminded the refugees that there are people in America who care about their struggles.
One story Sheikh focused on was that of Abdel-Karim's, a boy with a physical disability that prevents him from walking. He lives in a refugee camp without the resources for a wheelchair and is therefore confined to his tent. Sheikh’s group provided him with a wheelchair, improving his quality of life with immediate action.
Due to the scale of the refugee crisis, though, not all Syrian refugees can be helped in the same way as Abdel-Karim. While Sheikh initially found this reality overwhelming and discouraging, he now takes comfort knowing that individual impacts are still valuable.
“We only saw a handful of people and a handful of refugees, but they were representative of millions of people. We can help these people but we can’t help everyone else, so you start feeling like you’re not going to have that much of an impact,” Sheikh explained. “Yes, we didn’t help a million people, but that one person was so happy and so impacted by our personal interactions, and that’s going to change his life forever."
Sheikh, a UGBC Senator, is now developing plans to create change at BC, in Boston, and beyond. While not everyone can go on a trip to Jordan, he advocates for three modes of action to help Syrian refugees, which he simplifies to GAP: give, act, pray.
According to Sheikh and HHRD, giving money is the most effective way to aid those who need it most. HHRD donates 91 cents of every dollar given to the organization, supporting schools for orphaned refugee children and skill-development programs for widowed women, among other things. Through the Orphan Support Fund, $1 per day can fund an orphan’s education, nutrition, and medical care.
The Education Support Fund, Sheikh’s group’s initiative, sets out to fund ten refugees’ education for ten years with their target goal of $72,000.
Acknowledging that not everyone has the money to give, Sheikh hopes to inspire people to act by contacting elected officials to push for the allowance of more refugees in the U.S., as well as reaching out to local charities like ICNA Relief. Within the BC network, Sheikh is working on partnerships with Catholic Relief Services, 4Boston, and the Arab Students Association. He hopes to organize groups of students willing to teach Syrian refugees English, in order to help them acclimate to American culture.
Spreading awareness is another act anyone can do to encourage more people to join the relief effort. Talking to friends and loved ones about the refugee crisis, correcting misconceptions about refugees and Muslim people, and sharing information on social media are all valid options. According to Sheikh, this tangible approach to activism is accessible by everyone.
“I think the way that people can have an impact isn’t by fixing the whole crisis, but by operating within our own spheres of influence: our friend groups, our roommates, our families,” expressed Sheikh.
Lastly, the third approach Sheikh advocates for is to include refugees in our thoughts and prayers.
“Thoughts and prayers are very undervalued but very important,” Sheikh said. “However, that has to be accompanied by some kind of action, whether it’s financial donations or reaching out to representatives. Everyone, 100% of us, can have an impact. The only issue is engaging and convincing others that this is an important issue that they need to give some time to.”
Sheikh, now equipped and empowered by his experiences in Jordan to effect change, encourages all students and members of the larger community to do their part. Changed by the people he met and the things he experienced, he reiterates that everyone has a responsibility to do their part in the effort to help others.
“It’s not about solving the whole crisis,” he added. “It’s about doing your bit.”