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How one Wesleyan University student group supports Syrian refugee youth education

Q&A with Sarah Rahman

Since its establishment, the Amal Foundation has been relying on the hard work and passion of students in the United States to mobilize their communities and raise funds for the Amal-Jusoor Scholarship Fund, the organization’s signature program giving refugee youth in Jordan the opportunity to attend university.

Sarah Rahman has been supporting Syrian refugee education through the Amal Foundation since 2015. A 2016 Wesleyan University graduate, Sarah become involved with the Amal Foundation through the Wesleyan Refugee Project (WRP), a student organization that raises awareness about global refugee crises through advocacy, volunteering, and fundraising.

Rahman found an opportunity in WRP to support education for Syrian youth, a cause she felt passionate about. Rahman reflected, “Education will be one of the few things that will sustain the hope for a brighter future for not only refugees and their families, but the rebuilding of their war-torn country.”

2016-2017 scholarship recipients Yassin (left) and Nawar (right) holding Wesleyan University sweatshirts sent to them by their WRP peers. (courtesy of the Amal Foundation)

Rahman and WRP launched two online campaigns using the crowdfunding platform, LaunchGood, and raised over $28,000 to support scholarships for Syrian refugee students. The funds raised by WRP enabled the Amal Foundation to sponsor two refugee students living in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp to start their higher education at a local Jordanian university.

The Amal Foundation’s scholarship is modeled as a peer-to-peer sponsorship, with students in the United States not only raising funds, but also building relationships with scholarship recipients.

“When I saw the picture of [scholarship recipients] Nawar and Yasin holding Wesleyan sweatshirts, I felt as if they were my classmates,” said Rahman. WRP is educating other students on campus about refugee experiences through their involvement with the Amal Foundation, she added. “[That] dispels negative dialogue and images that the media portray, and builds cultural exchange.”

Today, Rahman continues to use her skills and energy to support refugees. A clinical research assistant since 2016, she has been working with a doctor at Brigham and Women's Hospital to continue HIV/AIDS research among refugees and displaced persons in sub-Saharan Africa. Recently, Rahman also joined the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), where she worked in Greece and Bangladesh to bring much needed healthcare to refugees. Rahman continues to work with the Amal Foundation as a Fundraiser and LaunchGood Liaison to raise funds and awareness in support of Syrian refugee students.

Rahman spoke with the Amal Foundation’s Adam Druckman about her work with WRP and the efforts she led in raising funds for Amal’s scholarship on and off campus.

A full Q&A with Sarah Rahman follows. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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AD: Can you tell us more about the Wesleyan Refugee Project?

SR: Wesleyan Refugee Project is a student group that aims to bring awareness to global refugee crises plaguing the world today through advocacy, volunteering, and fundraising efforts on and off the school campus of Wesleyan University. We have partnered with The Amal Foundation, International Refugee Assistance Project, Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, Paper Airplanes, Collateral Repair Project, and The Karam Foundation. Although, WRP's work has expanded immensely since I graduated and the amount we have accomplished as a student group would be too much to write in a few paragraphs.

AD: Why did you choose to get involved in supporting Syrian refugees and, in particular, higher education for refugees?

SR: I think my interest in helping refugees stems from me being a double diasporic Bengali Emirati Muslim American and my father being a refugee. My family would not have been able to stay in the United States if my father did not apply for political asylum. I have also always had an active passion in helping vulnerable populations in general.

Coincidentally, I also received a full scholarship to Wesleyan University. I grew up by the projects in Brooklyn and was a straight A student all throughout high school. Financing college was always on the forefront of my mind when applying for college, and fortunately, I was able to attend an amazing school debt-free. So this cause is a personal one, on many levels.

But personal reasons aside, higher education is important for a number of reasons: after the war is over, education will be one of the few things that will sustain the hope for a brighter future for not only refugees and their families, but the rebuilding of their war-torn country. It’s also a way for university students to sympathize with and relate to other university students; having college students sponsor individuals at their own age, who are striving to receive the same higher education, makes it a relatable cause, and along the way, educates them about refugee experiences, dispels negative dialogue and images that the media portray, and builds cultural exchange. The benefits of higher education for refugees are really quite numerous.

WRP’s Sarah Rahman is pictured. (courtesy of Sarah Rahman)

AD: Why did you choose to work with the Amal Foundation?

SR: The Amal Foundation was founded the same year as WRP and by students like ourselves. I really like having a personal relationship with Amal since I can contact Julie and Maya (co-founders of The Amal Foundation) directly if something comes up. I trust them and know that my efforts to help refugees access higher education are in good hands. I also love the ongoing support Amal and WRP are able to provide to the students throughout their university years –I do not know if any other organization does it so closely; it is not like they are just giving the students scholarship money and are like ‘here, go finish your college education;’ they are providing a lot of support and guidance. The relationship Amal has with its students is a personal one - likewise with WRP. When I saw the picture of Nawar and Yasin (2016-2017 Amal-Jusoor Scholarship Recipients) holding Wesleyan sweatshirts, I felt as if they were my classmates.

AD: Can you tell us more about LaunchGood and why you choose that platform to fundraise?

SR: LaunchGood is a relatively new online crowdfunding platform and one of the few, if not only, crowdfunding platforms geared towards the Muslim community to help raise money for charitable causes. Its impact has reached globally and have included a number of influential campaigns, like raising half a million to support the Portland victims. Linda Sarsour (American Muslim activist) is also an active member of the LaunchGood community. I wanted to be included in their community as a Muslim American and be a part of the great work they do and continue that great work by setting up my own campaigns; it also goes without question that LaunchGood is a very effective platform.

AD: Can you tell us about your two fundraising campaigns on LaunchGood?

SR: The first campaign was in September 2016 and was featured for the Dhul Hijjah Challenge. The second—in June 2017, was featured for the Ramadan Challenge. Dhul Hijjah marks the last month in the Islamic calendar, which is also a holy time when Muslims go on Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The first 10 days are especially important and in addition to observing God more closely, Muslims are expected to give Sadaqa (charity). Ramadan is the holy month of fasting to honor the revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The challenges that occur on LaunchGood during both these times tap into the significance of charity for Muslims—which is emphasized more heavily during these holy periods than any other day of the year. LaunchGood features a campaign for each day of the challenge (30 for Ramadan Challenge, 10 for Dhul Hijjah) and Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, within the LaunchGood community are encouraged to donate to the campaign of the day. The challenges also teach the community about Islam (even Muslims who end up learning more about the history of their religion, like me!), bring the Muslim and non-Muslim communities closer together, and raise awareness of many global causes. These challenges really end up being more than just about charity.

A snapshot of WRP’s second campaign on LaunchGood

AD: Were you surprised by the success of the campaigns, which raised around $12,000 and $16,000 respectively?

SR: Not at all. I knew from the start that LaunchGood was an effective crowdfunding platform. I witnessed many other campaigns reach above their goals before starting my first campaign. I think LaunchGood is unique because they have a project coach (shout-out to my girl Farah El-Jayyousi) who motivates you to reach your goal, checks in on how you’re doing, and gives you feedback and tips. LaunchGood also has cool features that allows your campaign to stand out instead of staying hidden among hundreds of other campaigns—like other crowdfunding sites do. You can get featured on the homepage, for a challenge that occurs a few times throughout the year, on their Facebook page, etc. They also have a vastly growing supportive donor community in 20+ countries.

AD: What was your favorite experience with working with WRP and the Amal Foundation?

SR: I am very grateful for the people I have met while working with the group—they are all such dedicated, hard-working, and amazing people with likeminded interests in improving the lives of refugees. Many of the Wesleyan students who volunteered while I was a leader are now leaders themselves—and they are doing incredible work. I do not think the friendships I developed with the other leaders and volunteers would have happened if I had not gotten involved with WRP. Likewise, I would not have known Julie and Maya personally! I also love to read about Nawar and Yasin and now, Reham, Alaa, Roqiya and Mahmoud (2017-2018 Amal-Jusoor Scholarship Recipients), and everything they are accomplishing—I cheer them on from hundreds of miles away and am looking forward to cheering on for the many more students Amal Foundation will sponsor.

AD: What would you recommend to others who are working to support Syrian refugees in their own community or starting a similar partnership with the Amal Foundation?

SR: I think it is very easy to get involved—there are lots of organizations striving to help refugees in some way and they happily take on volunteers with many different skillsets. If you are interested in setting up a partnership with the Amal Foundation, just contact Amal through their website, set up a crowdfunding page and you are good to go! It requires a lot of energy and hard-work, though—but with these driving forces, everything else should come easier because you seek out opportunities to make things happen.

I remember last summer, after I graduated, I kept contacting possible organizations and groups that could help WRP raise funds for the Amal Foundation. I even donated $200 on my father’s behalf even though what I had left in my bank account was only enough to cover my next cell phone bill. I cared so much and thought I could do more, I kept trying, and I suppose my passion to help refugees led me to finding LaunchGood. So, I think passion can get you far.

AD: Will you to continue to work with the Amal Foundation or work with refugees?

SR: I think doing another LaunchGood campaign next year is a possibility, and I would love to continue to work with Amal in whatever way possible. I am excited to meet the scholarship recipients at some point.

I am interested in global public health and a medical career helping the vulnerable and underserved. So, I definitely hope to continue working with refugees. My involvement with Amal has made me feel more confident in my abilities to help others—so it has definitely influenced my decision to continue working with refugees.

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You can support The Amal Foundation’s scholarship fund by launching a crowdfunding campaign online or by donating directly here.

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