It was Thursday, February 12, 2015 and Elijah Jatovsky and I sat in Arabic media class. I picked up my phone as we were transitioning to another presentation, and I noticed that I got a message from Sami: “Pat. Hey! Yo! Patrick.”
My first thought: Why is he messaging me at 9:50 p.m., Jordan time? Curious, I answered: “What’s up?”
The next messages he sent me changed everything and are seared into my memory: “I was accepted to the World University Service of Canada program. I got sponsored. I’m going to Canada.”
I didn’t know what to do. I started shaking, I think. I may have started to tear up. I grabbed Elijah and showed him my phone. What happened next, I don’t remember for sure, but I’m pretty sure we made quite a scene because the next time I looked up, people were staring at us wondering what had happened. As soon as I got out of class, I Skyped with Sami. It was his inability to describe what he felt, to talk about all the things that he was looking forward to once he got to Canada and how he was going to miss the people that he had been living with for years that have stuck with me the most.
I had met Sami in early September of 2014, during Elijah’s and my semester abroad in Jordan. Sami is just like you and me; he has a family and loved going to school. Switching from wanting to become a pilot and an engineer to eventually studying English translation, he became fluent in English. But his life changed when the Syrian Civil War started. He began living in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan for years, fearful and uncertainty of what the next day and his future would look like.
But his story is just one of the millions out there whose stories deserve to be heard.
This summer, I volunteered at the International Rescue Committee’s Refugee Youth Summer Academy in New York, a six-week program that helps refugee and immigrant children from all over the world prepare for New York public school. A great teacher of mine once said: children’s success comes in their ability to be confident in their abilities and to open up to the others around them. It was the last two weeks of the program that demonstrated how true this was. I was floored by the children’s improvement in English and their confidence to go up in front of the entire class and present. It was the joy on their faces as they performed in front of over 100 people at the talent show that only reinforced the idea that every child deserves to smile and deserves the best education and opportunities in life regardless of what they have been through.
The combination of these two experiences made me want to present at this year’s TEDxGeorgetown. Elijah’s and my talk was not about us but about the mass exodus of Syrian refugees we see risking everything they have in Europe and the Middle East, pictures of whom we are bombarded by everywhere we go. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the end of 2014, of the 19.5 million refugees globally, four million of those are Syrian, the largest refugee population today. But our talk was not just about them. It is about the other 40 million forcibly displaced people in this world who deserve our attention.
Through our talk, Elijah and I wanted to educate people about the crisis and to let people know that even when you think a crisis is far too big for you to have an impact, there is something small you can do that will have a lasting effect. I believe the best experiences start off seemingly small, random and meaningless but grow, strengthen and evolve into something that can change at least one person’s life.
Feeling that helping one person isn’t enough, Elijah and I, upon returning to Georgetown in spring 2015, established the Foundation for the Advancement of Refugee Education. Our aim is to offer at least one Syrian refugee the possibility of an education here at Georgetown as part of the Class of 2020. We have spoken to many people who are keen on supporting us and we really hope that we can provide Syrians, who want to continue their education and to help their country in the future, with the opportunity to do so.
Patrick Lim is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.
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