Lama: The Mobilizer
"The revolution in Syria changed our lives. I have a new occasion for life. I have a new dream. I have a new perspective, idea, about what life is and how it should be. The revolution helped us all to figure out who we really are. We are trying here with these kids in Karam and teach these kids that we have a country and this country is very good, and we did a revolution because we need it to be better."
What is your story? What resonates with you in terms of how you were driven to work in social impact?
My name is Lama and I’m from Damascus, Syria. I studied economics and have an economics degree from Damascus University. I was in my third year of university when the revolution started in Syria so that’s when I started volunteering and helping families who had been displaced from some neighborhoods in Damascus. When they were displaced, they were living in the schools. I volunteered there to help while I was in school. We were providing food, social aid, even financial aid. I worked with kids and was giving them lessons in math and English because they weren’t in school and needed some way to entertain themselves. I left Damascus in 2016 for Istanbul because my husband lives here and he can’t go back to Syria because of the problems with the regime. When I got here, it was a real challenge because I graduated in Syria but didn’t work in the humanitarian field. I didn’t know what to do when I came to Istanbul. When I was in Syria I had a job in the morning and then in the afternoon, I could help families. I knew I didn’t want to work in economics or accounting, I thought that I had a duty to my country, and to my people, and to my family. The revolution is not over, the problem is not solved, and people are still suffering so I have to help. I was searching for work with families when I met with Karam. They were opening their office here in Istanbul and I applied and I became the second employee in Karam Istanbul. I started working with Karam in 2017, with the families program. Now it’s called Karam Families. I started there, when we didn’t have any families yet, and now there are three projects at Karam. I’m the team leader for the families program. We have now 45 families in Istanbul and in Raheli we have 52 families so it’s around 900. The total number of kids in Istanbul is 160 and in Raheli it’s 200 kids.
Why is your current mission and the families project with Karam important to you?
In my opinion, the Karam program has perfect ideas and focus. We are helping the kids, we are solving a problem, and we are helping the kids to build the future. We search for the families who are most in need, financially and educationally, and we search for kids that aren’t in school for any reason. We are helping these kids to get back to school and to make sure they stay in school. We follow up with their schools about their grades and about if they need any educational help, if they need any private lessons. At the same time, we are working with the families to see if they need any help financially, medically, psychologically. We help them in every way. We sponsor the whole family, not just the kids. We are helping a family to build a future, leaders for the future. Kids come to Karam house to attend our workshops as part of the Karam Scholars program. The whole idea of Karam is that we try to help these kids from the beginning to the end. We try to help these kids have new opportunities in life, those who are facing very difficult decisions in all the ways you can think about. Orphan kids, people who come from horrible trauma. These kids when they go back to school, we even help them with psychological doctors so they may be able to be fine again and start their life and look for the future. And maybe someday when they get back to Syria they will be leaders again. You get to help people to have a life and have a future. We are so lucky because we are in touch with the families, we can see the impact we are having. The real impact. Maybe they were in a horrible house with a bad situation but a year later, they have a better house, a better situation, the kids are enrolled in school. I can see the impact that we are having on these families.
I’ve been with Karam for 3.5 years, and I know every single family with the program in Istanbul. I know their names, every family that came in and out. You get to know a lot of people and have a lot of friends. I feel like they’re actually my family here in Istanbul because my family is still in Syria. I have a society here, that’s what Karam gave me.
What do you feel like you’ve learned in that really consistent approach to seeing families through until they’re able to live a better life? What have been the big challenges?
There are a lot of challenges. We meet hopeless cases. Maybe cases that are really difficult. The main thing I’ve learned, over the past 3 or 4 years, is that anything is possible, we can always try. We have to try to do something with these families, from the smallest to the largest. Everything is possible. We can make a change. We can make an impact. Maybe the impact is a smile. Maybe the impact is with a word you said or an activity you did. That’s what I’ve learned from this program. These families, these kids, need help. And we can help. Everyone is responsible, especially Syrian people who left Syria. Everyone is responsible for these kids who lost their future, who lost their home. They left everything behind. We have to help them to build a life, to help them to study and live legally here in Istanbul, and to learn Turkish. The small impacts are important.
What does a typical day look like for you in the field or when you’re out working with the families?
Before coronavirus, we would usually visit about 5 families in the morning. We start going to the first family, go to their house. We sit down with us, a cup of coffee, and talk about what’s going on in Istanbul, Turkey, Syria. We make it like a family visit, not Karam visiting family, we are friends, we are one family and we are visiting each other. It’s a really fun and exciting thing to feel how close we are to these people. There’s actually a lot of different types of visits, like when we visit a family in the program that knows us, or when we visit a family for the first time. All the visits for the first time are the hardest because most of the situations are bad, and the family needs help very much. You see how much they are in need. You hear their story in the first visit, from the beginning, when they were happy and fine in their country and then everything changed and everything destroyed. It’s the hardest thing in our work to hear these stories but we visit them again and work with them. We love the field, to be with the families and the kids. When we visit the families, some of us talk with the parents, some play with the kids. It’s really beautiful and a lot of energy when we go to the field. At the end of each month we have to stay in the office and work on the laptops but we don’t like it as much, because when you’re out in the field, you’re in touch with everything and you’re seeing the impact!
How is Karam responding to coronavirus and what are the challenges that families in the program are facing?
It was a big problem when the coronavirus crisis started. A lot of people lost their jobs and were really in need financially. They were staying at home but faced a lot of challenges. In Istanbul, we have 45 families, and about 30 families lost their incomes. It was horrible. At that time, we started to provide additional financial assistance. We can’t really help them with work, sadly, because everything is closed. Most people cannot work remotely from home like we do. We tried to help them with COVID-19 aid. They are fine for now but we anticipate a lot of problems when they get back because some of them will need to search for other jobs. We were building something with families and now something has been destroyed, now we are starting at the beginning. We are in contact with families all the time and check in with them to make sure they need anything else, medical concerns or other needs. The kids were struggling initially with remote education and not being able to go outside so we regularly do activities and readings with the kids. Some families were supposed to leave the program in May 2020 but now, unfortunately, it will take some time to get back to where they were. These people suffered a lot to build something.
How do you feel about the language and narrative surrounding refugees and the revolution in Syria?
The revolution in Syria changed our lives. I have a new occasion for life. I have a new dream. I have a new perspective, idea, about what life is and how it should be. The revolution helped us all to figure out who we really are. We are trying here with these kids in Karam and teach these kids that we have a country and this country is very good, and we did a revolution because we need it to be better.
What is one piece of advice you’d want to give to someone who’s unfamiliar with the humanitarian community?
Me myself, before the Revolution, I didn’t think about helping other people to have a better life. Now being in Istanbul and with Karam, I think that even if Syria improves and we all go back, I’m still going to work in the humanitarian field. I think everyone should read and know about everything that’s happening in the world. It’s not just Syria. It’s Africa. It’s America. It’s Europe. There are problems throughout the whole world. We cannot live without helping each other. Go find outside what’s going on and how I can help. There are a million problems happening on our Earth that we should learn about and find their way to help. Maybe it’s a small thing, the smallest thing. We have to help each other and live in this world because it’s a difficult time, especially 2020. You have to know what’s going on in your world, your country, other countries: it’s not just giving money. You have to feel what’s going on with them. I believe that if we all helped each other, there would be no problems and we could solve everything that’s happening. We can defeat problems and solve them, but it’s not some people who need to be in the humanitarian sector: everyone has to be part of these efforts.
Lama's story was captured by guest writer Julia Thomas