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Supporting Syria’s Children

11/25/2013

Lina Sergie Attar MArch 01 (above center) works with internally displaced children in a Syrian refugee camp.

When Lina Sergie Attar MArch 01 left Syria in 1998 fresh from architecture school in Aleppo, she was excited to arrive in the US and start her studies at RISD, which soon became her “first home away from home.” She had no way of knowing that 15 years later she would be turning to the RISD community and others to help with what she calls “the largest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime.”

In the intervening years, Attar has graduated, taught architecture in the US and co-founded Karam – which means “generosity” in Arabic. Since 2011 the Chicago-based nonprofit has focused on providing humanitarian relief to Syrians – both inside the country and in neighboring areas – as she has watched with disbelief as her homeland has become hopelessly entangled in a civil war that threatens to drag on for years to come.

“After enduring two and a half years of the grueling brutality that defines Syria, the fall of Assad’s regime is no longer the most pressing concern of most Syrians,” Attar wrote in a recent piece for Pulse. “Rather, ‘When will we return home?’ is the question that haunts the over seven million displaced Syrians. Of course, the fact that the first concern is the reason the second one exists adds to the country’s mass despair.”

Given the recent reality, Attar has not been able to visit her home in Aleppo for more than two years. But as president of Karam, she has resolved to do whatever she can from a distance. A trip to Syria a year ago was the catalyst to co-found an educational mentorship program with Syrian-American artist Kinda Hibrawi to focus on displaced Syrian children, in particular. Called Zeitouna, it provides a temporary haven for creativity and innovation for thousands of children who have been traumatized by war. 

In June Attar and Hibrawi traveled to Atmeh, the largest camp for internally displace people inside Syria (on the Turkish border), to run the Karam Foundation’s first Zeitouna experience. The team offered six arts and sports workshops for more than 500 children and built a playground and soccer field to serve the 10,000 children now living in the camp indefinitely.

In a recent piece for a New York Times blog, Attar shared her deeply disturbing and profoundly rewarding experiences. For instance, in leading a workshop called Mapping Memory, she introduced the exercise by telling the kids her own story and her sadness at not being able to visit her home. “When I miss it, I remember it like this,” she told the children, beginning to draw her memories of home via a floor plan.

“I drew and drew and did not stop speaking,” she writes. “Floor plans, the least expressive of architectural drawings, …are technical drawings that explain how spaces fit together. Maybe that’s why I chose it: to seek distance in the cold, abstract sketch of my childhood home on a whiteboard in a tent, an hour’s drive away from the real place that I could no longer reach.”

Students then sketched floor plans of their own homes, drawing every detail with great excitement. After each workshop, Attar would offer the same words, telling the children: “You will return; we all will. But Syria will need you to rebuild then and you cannot rebuild without an education, without staying in school. Maybe you will become architects and rebuild your homes, villages and towns again.”

In two weeks, Attar and a team of more than 30 volunteer mentors – including fellow alum Max Frieder 12 PT, who works with the organization aptART – are returning to the Turkish border to hold Zeitouna Winter 2013 from December 9–13. Workshops this round will include: digital photography, soccer, calligraphy, storytelling, journaling, journalism, mural painting, architectural sketching, a full dental mission and more. 

“I never imagined my life would end up revolving around serving people in Syria after leaving it so long ago,” Attar admits. “The three years I spent in Providence feel distant now, but they changed my life. RISD taught me to think like an individual, embrace freedom of expression and believe in the endless possibilities of my creativity.”

Attar now hopes that Zeitouna can make a similar impact and help change the destinies of Syrian children living in conflict zones. She welcomes support from all members of the RISD community interested in helping with her ongoing efforts with Syrian children. “We need art supplies, volunteers, media, design services and most of all what RISD has in abundance: creativity,” Attar says. With another outreach effort in the refugee camp planned for early summer, she hopes to get even more RISD artists and designers involved.

–Liisa Silander

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tags: Architecture, alumni, global, nonprofits, diversity

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