Difference Maker: Alexis Hurd-Shires helping Syrian refugees

Globe Aware was featured in the October 29th issue of The Christian Science Monitor: People Making a Difference. As part of The Christian Science Monitor’s efforts to Create a World Where Giving and Volunteering Are a Natural Part of Everyday Life®, the publication regularly features NGO partners. The Christian Science Monitor also uses social media to continually inform readers about how they can get involved with the NGO partners.

Difference Maker

Alexis Hurd-Shires found her calling helping Syrian refugees

She headed to Lebanon with the general aim of doing some good. Finding a struggling refugee community badly in need of a school, she decided to open one.

Beirut, Lebanon — When Alexis Hurd-Shires decided to leave the United States and move to the Middle East, she didn’t know which country she would be going to or exactly what she would be doing. She only knew that she was going to try to make a positive impact.

Globe Aware Volunteer Vacations

Alexis Hurd-Shires stands with some of her students on the campus of Middle East University, outside Beirut, Lebanon.

The daughter of a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, she was accustomed to traveling. While working on a master’s degree in social work, and after graduation as well, she found short-term opportunities to work abroad. Still, she dreamed of finding something more permanent.

In 2013 the door opened for her to be part of a project sponsored by the Adventist church in Beirut, Lebanon, and Ms. Hurd-Shires jumped at the opportunity. But after she arrived, she found that the work she would be doing wasn’t clearly specified.

“It was actually almost like someone handing you a blank check and saying, ‘Go imagine something and do it,’ ” she says. “Basically, the Adventist church here in the Middle East felt like their church was very inwardly focused and not really reaching out … and they said to themselves ‘this is not healthy for any organization.’ ”

Hurd-Shires immediately began to assess what she could do to make a positive impact. As she explored Beirut, she came across the Bourj Hammoud community, a traditionally Armenian suburb that in recent years has seen an influx of migrant laborers, as well as refugees from the ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria.

Many charitable organizations were already working in Bourj Hammoud and providing for particular needs. But as Hurd-Shires began to talk directly with community leaders and the directors of various local organizations, she found that the Syrian refugee community in particular was in need of a great deal of support.

Educating their children was one of their biggest struggles.

Officially, Lebanon welcomes Syrian children into its public schools. The reality, however, can be less inviting. Along with Arabic, the curriculum is largely taught in French or English. Yet even if the Syrian children show competency in one of these languages, schools often still turn them away.

“Sometimes they say it’s because of the ratio. If there are 20 Syrian kids, they say, ‘We don’t want to accept them if we only have 10 Lebanese kids [in the class]’ because they don’t want to throw off the equilibrium of the school,” Hurd-Shires explains.

Lebanon’s entire population before the huge influx of refugees hovered around 4 million.

Because of the number of Syrian refugees fleeing into Lebanon – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees listed 1.3 million registered refugees in Lebanon as of early 2015 – discrimination against Syrians has become commonplace.

Hurd-Shires recognized that her “blank check” project could help to alleviate some of the challenges facing the refugees. So, in the fall of 2013, she opened the Bourj Hammoud Adventist Learning Center – just a few months after her arrival in Lebanon.

Hurd-Shires already had been collecting the names of refugee children who had been out of school for two to three years.

“By the time we were ready to open [our school], we even had a waiting list,” she says. “And it’s always been that way ever since.”

The school, now entering its third academic year, is able to accommodate 70 students. With a curriculum taught in both Arabic and English, it is run by a mix of full-time staff, university students, and a few volunteers from abroad.

Even before the school opened its doors, Hurd-Shires began working to meet the needs of the refugees by providing medical supplies and food. Through a steady stream of donations from other countries – and from the local Adventist community – the center has been able to provide support.

The school also works to build lasting relationships with those it serves.

“Three days a week after school, the teachers go out and they spend time in the homes, just visiting with the families, talking with the families, befriending the families,” Hurd-Shires says.

In addition to these home visits, the school also holds regular weekly gatherings and arranges outings that bring the refugee families together.

Last June, during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, Hurd-Shires and other staff joined refugee families for iftar dinners, as they broke their fast. The school has also organized iftar meals for the families at the school.

Such gatherings have not only caused the refugees to see Hurd-Shires and her staff as extended family, but also have helped to bring the Bourj Hammoud refugee community itself closer together.

During this year’s Ramadan, “Everyone was sharing what they felt blessed for,” Hurd-Shires recalls. “And one mother said, ‘I was really dreading Ramadan this year because for us Ramadan is a time for family, a time where everybody goes to cook food with family and neighbors. But here, who do I have? Even though I don’t have my real family here, I came to this iftar on the first night of Ramadan, and I am with my family.’ ”

Tragedy struck earlier this year when a student at the center died. But Hurd-Shires again saw how the community had grown together.

“As we were at the mom’s house, grieving with her and the family, one by one the other parents started coming to support her and be there for her,” she says.

Now, when the Bourj Hammoud Adventist Learning Center teachers and staff visit with a family in the evenings, it’s normal for other families to show up as well.

At the center of this budding community is Hurd-Shires herself.

“Alexis is trying her best to be friendly and helpful. She is always the shelter they come to whenever they have any problem,” says Noor al-Masery, a university student who works at the learning center.

“I’ve seen the impact of the center in the children’s lives … through making them feel that they are not alone in this world [and] allowing them to think about a better future through education,” says Christine Watts, another university student who has worked at the school.

Ayat Hariri, a 13-year-old student, says Hurd-Shires has become more than just a teacher. “She helped me very much, and I love her not just like a teacher, [but] like my friend.”

Hurd-Shires says she feels blessed by the support that the school has received thus far. But she has even bigger dreams. She hopes that the school someday will be able to expand to accommodate more students, or that perhaps she can open a second school elsewhere in Lebanon.

The gratitude of the refugees has been shown in some unusual ways.

“One day I came in and this one particular family was so excited to see me,” she says. “They were saying, ‘We have something for you! We have something for you!’ ”

They gave her a dried piece of skin, which they told her was the umbilical cord of their newborn baby. In their region of Syria, she learned, it’s traditional to put the umbilical cord in a place that signifies what you want for your baby’s future.

“We don’t have big dreams of what we want him to become or do in life,” they told her. “All we know is that we want him to be like you.”

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that help children in need:

  • The Shirley Ann Sullivan Foundation provides educational opportunities and seeks to protect children from exploitation and physical harm. Take action: Empower children through education.
  • World Food Program USA (Friends of WFP) supports the work of the United Nations World Food Program, the world’s largest hunger relief organization. Take action: Provide relief for Syrian refugees.
  • Globe Aware helps people and communities prosper without becoming dependent on outside aid. Take action: Volunteer to build a school in Ghana.
The Student Becomes the Teacher During Volunteer Vacation

A family traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia on spring break and shared their experience and the confidence-building activities their son engaged in during their Globe Aware volunteer vacation.

Learning in a one-to-one environment helps students build confidence. They grow in ways they never knew possible, and try new things they may have not done before.

Patrick, a Fusion Park Avenue student, is a glowing example of this. He and his family spent their spring break on a service trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

unnamed-3-646x345Patrick’s mom sent the Park Avenue team the following email about their trip:

“I hope everyone had a nice spring break. I thought you guys might like to see some highlights from our sightseeing and service trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia with a great voluntourism organization, Globe Aware. Patrick was awesome in taking on the role of a “teacher” and the kids – despite language barriers – really connected with him.

Patrick’s Family

We volunteered at the small “English-speaking” school in one of the poorest villages just outside Siem Reap. We were charged with helping the kids ranging in age from about 7 to 15 practice their conversational English. We were with them, totaling about 50 students, for 3 days. It was an incredible experience and Patrick was really moved by it and the children he met. While some of the kids were clearly amazingly bright, because of their economic disadvantages, I’m told the vast majority of them will ultimately stop going to school by the time they reach 7th or 8th grade. And, the school’s continued sustainability also remains fragile. As inspirational our time there was, parts of it were also heartbreaking.

I hope the time we spent there, and the students’ interactions with my kids, motivate them even just a little to try and keep pursuing their education in spite of the challenges they face economically and at home.

Patrick-FamilyWith that in mind, thank you all for the influence you’ve had on Patrick which helped him be able to shine in that setting and to feel he was doing something worthwhile and meaningful. You are all great mentors and have really helped Patrick emerge from a much more difficult place two years ago when he first came to Fusion. As I mentioned to Heather (Head of School, Fusion Park Avenue), he came there emotionally “broken” and you’ve all been huge contributors in his ability to heal and put him back on the path to being the kind, empathetic, and impactful member of society that I’ve always known he can be. Who knows, maybe some day he’ll go back to Cambodia or journey elsewhere and be a force that helps those children stay in school and break the seemingly inescapable cycle they are in.

I will be eternally grateful for the influence each and everyone of you have had in his development and growth.

As you’ll see, for his foray in the classroom, on one of the days we had him wear his Fusion t-shirt. I think it was a bit symbolic and a bit of a tribute to his teachers back home.


World People Making a Difference

Retired British policeman, Ian Tilling, went to Romania to help children and women in need. His nonprofit Casa Ioana is a place where women and children can go to feel safe and learn how to rebuild their lives. Ian was so inspired and pleased with the impact and success of his efforts, he never left Romania. Here is his story from the The Christian Science Monitor.

World People Making a Difference

By Kit Gillet, Correspondent

Bucharest, Romania — It’s been a journey to Romania of a quarter-century-and-counting for Ian Tilling. During that time he has been instrumental in setting up long-term shelters in Bucharest, the capital, initially for orphans, later for the homeless, and later still for families suffering from domestic abuse.

Casa Ioana, which he founded 20 years ago, recently opened a second night shelter in Bucharest, where women and children can go to feel safe and start to rebuild their lives. The charity is also about to roll out a series of courses to help recovering women develop job skills.

“Without a job the chances of changing the situation [for these women] is quite remote. The only way out really is through employment,” says Mr. Tilling, sitting in the historic Old Town neighborhood in the heart of downtown Bucharest.
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Tilling, a retired police detective from England, first came to Romania after seeing disturbing televised images of institutionalized children that were broadcast around the world following the Romanian revolution in December 1989.

“My wife asked me if I had seen the pictures coming out of Romania, the awful images of children languishing in orphanages,” says Tilling, explaining his first glimpse of the country that would come to dominate his life.

Within six weeks he and a British nurse had gathered up supplies and were driving across Europe in a borrowed van filled with donated baby food, diapers, toys, and medicine. They ended up at an orphanage called Plataresti, a “hellhole 40 minutes drive outside Bucharest,” Tilling recalls.

At Plataresti, Tilling was asked to help with a group of twenty 7- to- 9-year-olds who lived together in one room. Their cots were lined up 10 on each wall “like a row of prison cells” and the children never left them, he says. Most were still being bottle fed. The smell was awful. Tilling was tasked with talking with the children and keeping them clean, neither an easy task.

“For the month I was working there I was numb,” he says. Yet during the drive back across the Continent to Britain he decided he must go back to Romania. A little while later he did return, this time with 298 other people and a convoy of 100 trucks with supplies.

At the time of his first visit Tilling had been coming to the end of a long police career and wondering what to do next.

“I joined the police at 16 as a cadet. It was all I knew,” he says. He was living in the south of England with his wife and four children. Then in 1991 his eldest son, just 19, died in a motorbike accident and Tilling’s life fell apart.

In 1992 he took early retirement and moved to Romania to run a British charity he had established to provide lifelong care to some of the children from Plataresti.

“Looking back I was clearly escaping the hurt I felt back home,” he says.

However, rather than helping to heal his pain the project proved to be a nightmare itself, with the Romanian government breaking promises and officials demanding bribes. He was left trying to manage a small apartment block in Ferentari, a district of Bucharest that was fast becoming a ghetto inhabited primarily by desperately poor Roma (commonly called Gypsy) families.

“It was all unraveling, and my personal demons were coming to the front, and I was having to deal with that, too,” Tilling says.

In the winter of 1994-95 he lived with 300 Roma families in a collection of dilapidated apartment buildings. To top it off his marriage was breaking up.

“It was the lowest point in my life, but I was fortunate in that I finished my grieving process,” he says today.

Near the end of that winter friends gathered to urge him to leave, even going so far as collecting money for his plane ticket. But he didn’t want to return to England defeated. Instead he regrouped, creating a new charity – a Romanian one – that would pick up where the British charity had left off.

Casa Ioana was born. Over the next few years it became a halfway house for formerly institutionalized young adults and a resource center that helped local organizations set up a school for children with profound disabilities, as well as a kindergarten for local Roma families.

In 1997 Tilling was approached by the mayor of Bucharest with a request to open a night shelter for homeless men, who had become a growing problem in the city. He eventually agreed after the mayor offered to supply a building to house the shelter.

It opened as an emergency shelter for homeless men. But after a few years Tilling noticed the large number of women who came looking for a place to stay together with their children.

Recognizing that the system was failing these families at a time when they needed to keep together he refocused his efforts. Today, Casa Ioana is the largest provider of temporary shelter for survivors of domestic abuse in Bucharest. “I do what I do out of a profound sense of justice,” he says. “I hate to see people suffering.”

Those who know Tilling say he works day and night. “He is a one-man tornado,” says Nigel Bell, a British expatriate businessman who volunteers his time and expertise to Casa Ioana. “He tries to do everything himself; it is absolutely personal to him.”

Despite having the title of president of Casa Ioana, Tilling is often found painting the walls or cleaning the toilets.

Women and children who arrive at the shelters are left alone for the first few weeks. When they are ready they sit down with members of his team, which includes psychologists working pro bono, to develop a plan for moving forward.

Families can stay for as long as a year but Tilling says the vast majority move on within six to eight months. The women get jobs and are able to afford their own places, he says.

Casa Ioana perpetually faces challenges of space and money. It has room for 20 families and nine single women; last year it had to turn away 200 families. “We simply didn’t have room,” Tilling says.

His charity has a budget of about $100,000 a year; 80 percent of its funding comes from private donors and 20 percent from the Romanian government. It employs six staff members. Tilling himself takes no salary and lives on his British pension.

“Ian keeps us together. He brings people in from outside, and he opens the right doors,” says Monica Breazu, one of the social workers employed at Casa Ioana.

Parts of Romania are very traditional, and domestic abuse is often swept under the rug. Women who break away from abusive relationships and end up at Casa Ioana are likely to have been almost completely reliant financially on their husbands.

“Many haven’t got high school diplomas, and without that they can’t access formal training,” Tilling says. “So we created the opportunity for them to return to school. We give them the equivalent of a minimum salary in order to study.” Casa Ioana is also developing a financial-literacy program and six other courses that cover what employers will be looking for from new hires.

Tilling’s journey has never been easy. In 1998 the first Casa Ioana was ransacked by outsiders; everything was stolen right down to the fixtures and electrical wiring. “There were many occasions when I was close to saying enough is enough,” he says. “I’ve invested so much of myself. The good thing was I literally had nothing to go back to, so that was a good incentive to persevere.”

In 2000 Tilling was honored with an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II, shortly after Prince Charles visited Casa Ioana. Two years later he was awarded Romania’s equivalent.

Tilling knows that eventually he’ll have to pass the responsibility for Casa Ioana along to someone else. But it appears that it isn’t going to be anytime soon.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help children worldwide:

  • Globe Aware helps people and communities prosper without becoming dependent on outside aid. Take action: Volunteer to work helping the underprivileged in Romania.
  • Eastern Congo Initiative works with the people of eastern Congo, where local, community-based approaches are creating a sustainable society. Take action: Support access to education for girls in eastern Congo.
  • Half the Sky Foundation enriches the lives of orphans in China, offering loving, family-like care. Every orphaned child should have a caring adult in his or her life. Take action: Help a teen in Half the Sky’s youth services program.