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“Being a Refugee is a Circumstance, it should not define who you are.” – Diverse Ideas with Lina Sergie Attar

On the 5th of November 2021, the UWM Institute of World Affairs (IWA) in collaboration with the UWM Lubar Entrepreneurship Center (LEC) organized a Diverse Ideas event featuring Lina Sergie Attar, Founder and CEO of the Karem Foundation, an organization creating safe spaces for Syrian refugees to connect, learn and develop support ecosystems with one another. Diverse Ideas was born out of passion for finding innovation and entrepreneurial thinking in different parts of the world, and creating a space for students and community to engage in meaningful conversations with leaders across the world. The event was co-hosted by Nicole Powley, assistant Director for Programs at the LEC and Nicole Palasz, Director of Programs at IWA.  

Lina is a Syrian American born in New York to parents who migrated from Aleppo Syria to build a better future for themselves and their families in the United States. She grew up in a very small town in upstate New York. And when she was 12 years old, her family decided to move back to Syria because her father wanted to live in the city, where they can trace their ancestors back to many generations. Lina experienced a huge cultural shock moving from a small town in America in sixth grade to living in a big city in Syria. Despite the adjustments, she appreciated the opportunity of learning the local language, living close to her extended family and building roots at home. Her family still visited the United States every summer and this increased her awareness of the differences between growing up in Syria and being American. 

Upon completing her degree in Architecture at the University of Aleppo, Lina returned to the United States to further her graduate studies in the same field. She found fulfillment in teaching and taught at a University for a little while before starting her nonprofit in 2007. She and her friend decided to start a foundation that is focused on the Arab American community. In Lina’s words, “We called it Karam which kind of means generosity in Arabic and we gave it this name because there were a lot of people in our community that didn’t think about the idea of giving, and giving in a smart way to efficient, small organizations that were doing a lot of really amazing work. 

According to World Vision, an estimated number of 13.5 million Syrians are forcibly displaced, more than half of the country’s population. Karam’s Foundation was inspired by a sense of urgency to respond to the crisis using education as a pathway to change the narrative. Now, the organization has a network of individuals, mostly refugees, working on the ground in Turkey to support Syrian refugee youth. There’s also a small group of volunteers in the United States, working on communications, fundraising and developing programs. 

After years of working with the refugee populations, Lina and her team started Karam House in 2016 to create a home away from home for refugees fleeing the war to find a safe haven on the Syrian/Turkish border. According to Lina, “the house is literally like two or three miles away from the border sometimes when the war was very intense in northern Syria, you could actually even hear the bombings from that town. And, and that’s kind of the first place of when people cross over from Turkey. Karam Foundation also targeted teenage refugees because they were not having access to education and they were being pulled out of school, to go to into child labor. Girls were getting married earlier to support their families. Lina believes that by intervening in a teenager’s life early on, it could change the outcome of their life, really quickly by stabilizing their school situation, giving them tools and opportunities, mentorship and a safe space to socialize and be normal teenagers. Teenagers who live at Karam House are also encouraged to either get into higher education or build skills for dignified work.  

The organization has three main areas of intervention which are: Supporting families, getting young children out of child labor and getting them back into schools. Teenagers at Karam House have access to a maker space, laptops, Wi-Fi, a library as well as basic infrastructure like a kitchen to be able to make their own meals and snacks. Lina describes Karam Foundation as not just a school but a place. She shared a moving story of a Karam teenager whose dream is to become a space engineer. According to Lina, this is something that would have been impossible for a Syrian girl to aspire to even before the war and by being in a space with access to information, the teenagers can dream of a better future.   

Lina describes being a refugee as a circumstance and that should not define who someone is. Karam Foundation hires refugees and engages the refugee community to be served by their own, because this gives ownership and co-authorship of programming and solutions versus handing down ideas and solutions to refugee populations which isn’t sustainable.  

To learn more about Karam Foundation, kindly visit – https://www.karamfoundation.org/