Special delivery: Students organize to send letters of support to Syrian refugees

A group of Stanford medical students is helping organize a campaign to send letters to Syrian refugees living in Jordan.

- By Ruthann Richter

In the video, Raneem, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan, is shown reading aloud a letter of support from a staff member at the School of Medicine. The 18-year-old woman, wearing a black head scarf and plaid dress, pauses at one point, bows her head and wipes away tears.

“She gave me motivation and hope,” Raneem said of the letter writer. “It felt like someone is sharing the same ambitions with me.” 

The writer, Laila Soudi, is a research assistant in global mental health who is spearheading a campaign to encourage members of the Stanford community to write to Syrian refugees who have fled their country’s violence. She is partnering with CARE International, a humanitarian nonprofit organization, which produced the video and will deliver the letters to refugees living in camps and in urban centers in Jordan.

“These are letters of solidarity and support,” Soudi said in an interview. “We have to be careful in not overpromising anything. But our message is that we understand you exist and your voices are silenced, but we are here to support you in any way we can. You are not alone.”

Soudi and a coalition of medical and undergraduate students aim to engage as many people as possible across the Stanford campus in composing letters that will be delivered to the refugees, particularly children and teenagers.

Letter-writing event

They are organizing a mass letter-writing event April 20 in Room M114 of the medical school’s Alway Building and at The Markaz, a campus resource center for Stanford’s Muslim community. Letter-writers can also send their expressions of support online.

Soudi said the campaign was inspired by her experiences working with refugees in Jordan, where some 2 million Syrians have sought shelter from their country’s devastating civil war in what some have called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in decades. She said many, like Raneem, are still suffering from the trauma of seeing their family members murdered and their homes destroyed. Her research in the laboratory of Victor Carrion, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, focuses on the impact of this trauma on the mental health of children and adolescents.

Laila Soudi plays with Syrian refugee children during a visit to the King Abdullah Park Refugee Camp in Jordan. She says many of the children suffer from the trauma of their country’s devastating civil war.    
Dala Abu Ragheb 

The campaign is also a personal one: Soudi, a native of Syria, said she has much in common with Raneem, whose goal is to become a pharmacist so she can help others, particularly Syrian children.

“I feel like I am talking to somebody who could very well be my sister,” Soudi said.

Some student leaders of the campaign said they felt compelled to act in light of the Trump administration’s proposed ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, a move that many have condemned for putting Muslim communities under a cloud of suspicion and sending a message to refugees that they are unwanted.

“This year especially, with refugees being vilified by the administration and the media, I think it’s very important to take action around refugees, humanizing them and letting the world know, letting America know, letting Stanford know that these are human beings worthy of an opportunity,” said Osama El-Gabalawy, a first-year Stanford medical student from Seattle who is involved in the effort.

Other students say they have watched the unfolding of the Syrian crisis with horror and felt paralyzed by their inability to intervene.

‘Feel really powerless’

“I feel really powerless on this end. We care a lot and we see these horrible things happening, and there is not much we can do without endangering ourselves,” said Yagmur Muftuoglu, a first-year medical student who is helping to organize the letter-writing event. “But I see the letter as something we can possibly do, something that might bring somebody a bit of recognition for the horrible things they’ve experienced. As medical students here, we are so blessed. Being able to do nothing about it is something I sit with every day.”

Muftuoglu said she and other medical students had been looking for a meaningful way to help refugees and had considered traveling to Jordan to provide direct support. But she questioned whether “dropping in” for a week or two on a humanitarian mission would be a meaningful way to contribute.

“It’s not necessarily that a letter-writing campaign will change someone’s life,” said Muftuoglu, a native of Turkey. “But we want these people to know we are thinking of them — that they mean something important to us and their lives are dear.”

She, El-Gabalawy and others are working with undergraduates and with fellow graduate students in law and business to engage them in the campaign. They hope to gather between 200 and 300 letters, which will be translated into Arabic by student volunteers, El-Gabalawy said.

“We are excited about getting our peers involved and showing them that if you are frustrated by paralysis of action, there are always avenues. It can be as simple as writing a letter. A big part is breaking out of that paralysis and realizing that your voice can be very powerful,” El-Gabalawy said.

He believes the campaign will be particularly appealing to medical students, whose mission is to guard the health of others.

“Recognizing someone’s humanity is the most essential step in caring for their health,” he said.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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