The Impact of Karam: A Conversation with our Karam House Reyhanli Site Manager
In honor of World Refugee Day, we spoke with Feras, Site Leader of Karam House Reyhanli and refugee himself, about his inspiring work, the impact the students have had on him, and what motivates him to keep going. You can read more about our 2019 World Refugee Day campaign here.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How long have you been working with Karam Foundation, and what drew you to this organization?
I was displaced in 2013, having fled from the incessant bombardment of my city. My family and I decided to make our way to Reyhanli, Turkey, right on the Syrian border, and my first job involved delivering psychosocial support to children. Because Reyhanli is such a small town, I heard about a possible project called Karam House that was supposed to open soon. I was immediately fascinated by the idea and wanted to get involved - even if it meant just being a volunteer.
I have now been working Karam for approximately 2.5 years, and it was so easy for me to make the decision to join the team. I believe deeply in the principles of this organization. I believe in how they want to build a better future for the youth and how they demonstrate what it looks like to learn, develop and grow.
You’re the Site Manager of Karam House Reyhanli, which has three innovative educational programs: the design-studios, Karam Scholars, and Sponsor a Syrian Refugee Family (SSRF). Tell us, what is Karam House to you?
Karam House, for me, is a part of the country - our homeland - that every single person was forced to flee. This homeland is the place where we feel most free. It is a place filled where passions and pursue, dreams are lived, and leaders are built.
Which of the three programs has impacted you most at a personal level - and why?
I have been working on our Sponsor a Syrian Refugee program since it began, and it resonates with me so much because it address the core reason that families send their children into child labor by providing a pragmatic solution: financial relief. It was so painful to see children drop out of school to make a mere $5 per week.
I particularly remember Khaled, who was 16 years old when his father died. He became the main breadwinner for his family, working in a nearby farm with his brother, where they would spend hours under the sun and heat to make enough money for food and drink. Once our team identified his case, we registered his family for the program, and both he and his brother went back to school! Not only that, Khaled was also able to do what he loved - play soccer. Now, Khaled has an opportunity to play soccer with a legitimate Turkish club team.
Can you recall a moment in time in your work where you felt the work happening at Karam House was revolutionary?
To be honest, every day in Karam House is revolutionary. That being said, there are certain moments that are indescribable - like the day we held the sixth exhibition of Karam House projects. For the first time ever, over 600 people attended, and the energy was unbelievable. I still remember the students energetically describing their projects - how the robots they designed serve humanitarian purposes and how their life-size playground equipment was to be placed in a local park.
Throughout the day, families and attendees asked students about their projects, why they designed things the way they did, and the purpose behind their projects. We even had Turkish school teachers who attended because some of their students asked them to! This had never happened before. That in and of itself was revolutionary, and the engagement that we saw gave our students so much confidence and pride. To see the kids present their projects in Arabic, Turkish, and some even in English, with uplifting confidence brought about feelings that I will never, ever forget.
Compared to your previous experience working with nonprofits, how does Karam Foundation differ?
Karam Foundation offers something completely different then the places I have worked with. First, Karam has a deep belief in positive change, which manifests in a true desire to provide real support in order to develop the youth. The authenticity of the organization is so apparent, and it’s why I’ve committed myself to helping its growth and development. Karam is also unlike many of the organizations responding to the Syrian crisis, which are focused on providing services that keep people living and nothing more.
What resonates so much with me is what we hear from Karam often: giving is a privilege - not an obligation. This is what makes Karam different.
Despite the obstacles your team and students have faced in the past, how do you keep hope alive?
As a people, Syrians have been subjected to challenges that were out of our control. Becoming refugees was not what we wanted, but it is an undeniable reality. It is natural that our experiences give us deep pain - but life continues. We refuse to continue to call ourselves victims and live in a constant state of weakness - that cannot be our reality. Here, at Karam House, we are creating a new reality, new dynamics that allow us to turn our difficulties into something powerful.
Our team is composed of people whose motivation for their work exceeds the difficulties come about working in such an emotionally challenging environment. Our team takes pride in their work and do what they have to do to in order to see results.
As for the youth, every single one of them has given me hope. Despite their difficulties, I see them dreaming, learning, and creating. They do not let their circumstances and past experiences define their future. They are simply inspiring.
Tell us about a story of a student who, in your opinion, is an example of why we do the work we do.
There are stories - not just one story - that explain why we do the work we do. It is the story of the student who faces several obstacles in his new community that he was forced to join, lacks confidence, and has no clear path or goal in mind. It is the story of the student who left school to work with the pure intention of finding a better life. It is the story of our team delivering the message of Karam to a student: what our programs can possibly do for her, which convinces her to visit Karam House. It is the story of her then meeting new friends, in a place where she feels safe and can start her own journey. That is the story of why we do what we do - and we have seen it many, many times.
As a Syrian, why do you think the work of Karam Foundation is vital?
When you are Syrian, the concept of a “leader” has major negative connotations. It was the “leader” that caused the destruction of Syria and forced millions of people to be displaced. It was the “leader” that limited our dreams, which then limited our understanding of our own potential and ambition. We forgot that we were capable of so much more. On top of that, we had ideas that we were afraid to talk about and views that we were not allowed to articulate. The concept of teamwork did not exist and neither did the idea that there was value in investing in your local communities - these thoughts were basically forbidden.
What Karam Foundation has been able to do for Syrian students is provide services and programs that we thought only existed on TV - things that we thought were impossible. Karam House has opened doors for a new type of life for Syrian youth - a space where they have the freedom to do what we weren’t able to in Syria. It has given them a space to innovate, create, and implement their ideas, and a space to be bold and dream about the impossible.
Here, Syrian refugee youth are changing their own lives, improving their families’ lives, and creating a new role for themselves - ultimately transforming Syrian society as a whole.