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Aid Group Uses Successful Syrian Refugee To Inspire Others In Turkish Camp


More than 3 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country because of the Civil War. More than half are children, and for them, the hopelessness of the situation can be especially overwhelming. Relief workers struggle with how to convince the young refugees that there is a future. NPR's Deborah Amos reports one private U.S.-based group, the Karam Foundation, uses a refugee success story to try to inspire them.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Lina Sergie Attar comes to Turkey every six months to work with Syrian kids. She heads the Karam team. Her volunteers include counselors, artists and doctors to reach children in a variety of ways. In Istanbul, she showed me the highlights on her cell phone of a week of working with kids.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

AMOS: These children are students in Reyhanli on Turkey's southern border. Many are traumatized and depressed. Sergie Attar created a workshop to help them work through the past called Mapping The Memories.

LINA SERGIE ATTAR: Because I'm an architect by training, I tell the children to draw a floor plan of their home. And I tell them they all will be little architects and they have a future. And they understand how to make a technical drawing that's abstract but also do storytelling through drawing - remembering in a non-traumatic way.

AMOS: There are some kids she can't forget - a 10-year-old named Omar.

ATTAR: He stood up, and he said I don't want to draw anything. I don't have a future. All I want to do is grow up as fast as I can and become 18 very, very fast and then die.

AMOS: Remembering the past is just too painful for some kids. So how to get them to think about the future even believe that they have one? Enter 34-year-old Mohanad Ghashim, the newest member of the team. A refugee himself, he fled from Syria's northern city of Aleppo in 2011 when he feared for his life, leaving everything behind. He tells the kids that war is awful, but it taught him things.

MOHANAD GHASHIM: You accept change. You accept losses. I had to lose. I had to accept it quickly, adapt to the loss and then look at what I could do.

ATTAR: People like Mohanad really give them hope for the future because he actually did it.

AMOS: What Mohanad Ghashim did is remarkable, but he doesn't tell his story right away. He tells them he was a refugee just like them. Then he tells them he used his education in technology. He developed a new business - an internet business. He found customers and then investors just as his cash was running out. His e-commerce company, Shop-Go, is now a regional success. Even he is astonished at what the business is worth.

GHASHIM: Over $5 million. (Laughter).

AMOS: You went from $2,000 in your pocket...

GHASHIM: ...To over $5 million. Yeah - in about two years. Yeah. It's crazy. I know. I know. Whenever I think of it, it's really crazy.

AMOS: And you were a refugee?

GHASHIM: Yeah. I had to start over from scratch.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in a foreign language).

AMOS: Here's another memory on Lina Sergio Attar's cell phone. She says that Ghashim's story of loss and success is inspiring. He also delivers a tough message - education is the key, and you have to rely on yourself.

ATTAR: Because there's that refugee mentality that you have to come save us. You owe us. And somebody like Mohanad can say the world doesn't owe you anything, and life is really hard, but life also has a ton of opportunities. And that was so powerful.

AMOS: Powerful for kids who don't see a future or a life beyond a refugee camp away from home.

GHASHIM: It's bad. Some of them are extremely depressed. I'm not going to plant in all kids that seed in the future. I'm not saying it's easy. But you have to decide where you want to go.

AMOS: Nobody handed me my future, he says. I had people who showed me the road, and I took it. He's showing the road to Syrian kids in southern Turkey. He'll be back with a volunteer team in six months. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.