In the video above, Raneem, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan, is shown reading aloud a letter of support from a research assistant at Stanford Medicine. The 18-year-old woman, wearing a black head scarf and plaid dress, pauses at one point, bows her head and wipes away tears.
“She gave me motivation and hope,” Raneem says of the letter-writer. “It felt like someone is sharing the same ambitions with me.”
The writer, Laila Soudi, is a research assistant working in global mental health in psychiatry, and she’s spearheading a campaign to encourage members of the Stanford community to write to Syrian refugees who have fled their country’s violence. She is partnering with CARE International, a humanitarian nonprofit, which produced the video and will deliver the letters to refugees living in camps and in urban centers in Jordan.
“These are letters of solidarity and support,” Soudi said in an interview. “We have to be careful in not over-promising anything. But our message is that we understand you exist and your voices are silenced, but we are here to support you in any way we can. You are not alone.”
Soudi and a coalition of medical and undergraduate students are organizing a mass letter-writing event in early April at the School of Medicine and hope to engage other students, both graduates and undergraduates, across campus.
She said the campaign was inspired by her experiences working with refugees in Jordan, where some two million Syrians have sought shelter from their country’s devastating civil war in what some have called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in decades. She said many, like Raneem, are still suffering from the trauma of seeing their family members murdered and their homes destroyed. Her research in the laboratory of Victor Carrion, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, focuses on the impact of this trauma on the mental health of children and adolescents.
Some student leaders of the campaign said they felt compelled to act following the U.S. administration’s proposed ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, which has further isolated Muslim communities and sent a message to refugees that they are unwanted.
“This year especially, with refugees being vilified by the administration and the media, I think it’s very important to take action around refugees, humanizing them and letting the world know, letting America know, letting Stanford know that these are human beings worthy of an opportunity,” said Osama El-Gabalawy, a first-year medical student from Seattle who is involved in the effort.
Other student leaders of the campaign say have watched the unfolding of the Syrian crisis with horror and felt paralyzed by their inability to intervene.
“I feel really powerless on this end. We care a lot and we see these horrible things happening, and there is not much we can do without endangering ourselves,” said Yagmur Muftuoglu, a first-year medical student and native of Turkey. “But I see the letter as something we can possibly do, something that might bring somebody a bit of recognition for the horrible things they’ve experienced. As medical students here, we are so blessed. Being able to do nothing about it is something I sit with every day.”
El Gabalawy said if students feel that sense of paralysis, “There are always avenues. It can be as simple as writing a letter. A big part is breaking out of that paralysis and realizing that your voice can be very powerful.”