By Amina Demir
Flying into Gaziantep, I was well aware of the crisis in Syria and at the border of my father’s hometown. However, the news articles and social media posts hadn’t prepared me enough to face the reality.
Nearly 10 years at the Zakat Foundation of America (ZF), and this was my first official field visit. I had my questions and notes ready, and I was headstrong and determined to come back to Chicago with a detailed account of our projects. After one month in Turkey, not only did I have the photos and the interviews coming back home with me, but I also had a more humbled outlook on life.
ZF is currently operating an office in Gaziantep, as well as a safe house, two orphanages, three schools, two clinics and a university, all dedicated to Syrian refugees. I had the pleasure of visiting all except two schools, which were located early three hours from where I was staying. I had intended on confirming the logistics of the projects, but above all, interact with the beneficiaries.
Meeting such a sincere group of people — men and women, young and old — provided me with a new scope of my career and day-to-day obligations at ZF Chicago. Our Muhammad Ali Safe House housed 48 women and fostered 200 orphans, additionally serving as a grade school for the orphans. These women are able to feel as if life hadn’t stopped, even for a moment. The women and children are provided all basic necessities and supported through the warming arms of our partners. Our orphanage and medical clinic in Hatay fosters 180 orphans, but more specifically, orphans with developmental and cognitive disabilities. These orphans in particular suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Down Syndrome, depression, anxiety and a list of other disorders. Our partners in Hatay are tasked with not only assisting these orphans, but nurturing them as well.
I had the opportunity to meet a young man named Hazem*, who at the age of 9 witnessed his father’s gruesome death. These are children in dire need of assistance and care, and our contacts in Hatay are performing above and beyond. Their deeds are surely accounted for with The Most Supreme.
ZF Gaziantep shares its building with Zahraa University, an accredited university designed for Syrian refugees who were unable to complete their education due to the political climate in Syria. Classes are taught in Arabic and Turkish, allowing the students the comfort of their native language as well as preparing them for daily life in Turkey. The university offers degrees in education, English, engineering, sharia law, media, and Arabic. I had the pleasure of meeting a variety of men and women from the ages of 19 to 54. It was inspiring to meet a group of people determined to complete their education despite the way their lives had been uprooted.
Lastly, I visited a small village exactly at the border of Syria called Suruc. It was bombarded with refugees in 2013. In two days, 450,000 people migrated to the village. Suruc was home to the ZF Women’s Awareness Clinic. This particular project is especially dear to me as a new mother. The ZF Women’s Awareness Clinic specializes in educating refugee women on the general health care and sustenance of their infant children. The clinic was modest in size: two doctors, four nurses and a UNICEF-trained nutritionist. The clinic focuses on breastfeeding, nutritional care, postpartum depression and self-sustenance. By teaching these women healthy home remedies, they are able to help build a self-sustaining community. The clinic refrains from promoting any forms of antibiotics unless completely necessary.
The education shared with me hadn’t been available postpartum in the United States. I felt proud and inspired by the employees, and I left feeling more hopeful for the people of Syria.
After 10 years at ZF, it had become the routine 9-6 for me, punching in numbers, checks and balances. However, after my trip, it has opened my eyes to the impact every second makes. Our work is larger than life, often literally. There are hundreds of thousands benefiting from our work in Turkey alone. I am honored to be an employee at ZF and pray God blesses me to be able to continue my work for many years to come.
If you are interested in volunteering at one of ZF’s field offices, contact firstname.lastname@example.org with your resume.
* = name changed to protect identity