Yale Students Donate Three Classrooms for Syrian Refugees

When Stephanie Leutert and Nitsan Shakked returned to Yale last fall for their second year at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, the graduate students were deeply troubled by what they found. All summer long, they had watched as Syrians died in dinghies in the Mediterranean, paid smugglers to transport them in refrigerator trucks and fell ill in overcrowded holding sites while fleeing their homeland for Europe. Yet back on campus people seemed more wrapped up in the hubbub of a new semester.

“We were watching this huge global event taking place on the news, but not seeing that reflected on campus,” Leutert said. “So, we decided to do something about it.”

Enter Relief International. RI has been running education programs for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq since 2012. In Jordan, education teams have provided services to more than 22,000 students since then, helping them overcome interrupted learning with remedial education. RI’s Danijel Cuturic, the Education Program Manager in Jordan, told Leutert and Shakked about the program’s accomplishments. In 2014, for instance, only eight students in Za’atari camp passed the Tawjihi high school graduation exam. All eight of them had been tutored by RI. All eight went on to win private scholarships to universities in Jordan. This, thought Leutert and Shakked, was a program they could get behind. 

“We talked to around 10 different organizations working on education for Syrian refugees, but we chose Relief International because we were able to discuss our plans extensively with Danijel,” Shakked said. “It was a lot of back-and-forth brainstorming, and he really helped us see where this project would go.”

Cuturic directs RI’s education programs in the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps. He told Leutert and Shakked that the greatest need was for classrooms. 

“We urgently needed a space for students in the Azraq camp, and getting a grant for the classrooms would usually take a long time,” Cuturic said. “But Stephanie and Nitsan fundraised in two weeks.” 

Leutert and Shakked wanted to engage their fellow students in the cause by highlighting the connection between Yale as a renowned research institute and the schools in refugee camps.

“We wanted to show a tangible project for people to see where their money was going,” Leutert said.

With the help of well-known Middle East expert Emma Sky, Leutert and Shakked created a working group of interested students, senior fellows, and faculty from various departments. They set a fundraising goal of $6,000 — enough for one classroom in the Azraq camp. 

Word of their project and goals travelled, and more joined the cause. A colleague studying nonprofits in the Yale School of Management saw an opportunity for hands-on learning. He recruited more management students, who designed fundraising strategies and helped launch a donations page.

Within 48 hours, more than 50 students had donated. Gifts ranged from $10 to $200. People offered matching grants. A few large, anonymous donors stepped up, offering as much as $6,500.  

“It seemed like everyone had just been looking for the right avenue to contribute to this cause,” Shakked said. “It was not at all like pulling teeth.”

The students eventually raised more than $17,000 for the Azraq camp — enough for three classrooms and nearly triple their original goal. 

Leutert and Shakked were able to see their fundraising efforts in action this January, when Yale sent them to visit RI’s programs in Jordan.

While their donation funded caravans for the Azraq camp, Cuturic first took them to the much larger Za’atari camp. Za’atari offers multiple education centers and recreational activities.  Leutert noticed that the children ran the same soccer drills she had as a child.

She also noticed the stark differences between the older camp and the newer Azraq camp. Azraq felt more like it was in the middle of the desert — more like a refugee camp, she said. 

“But then we got to see the art classroom — this caravan that has been transformed into this incredible artistic space,” Leutert said. “It’s obvious that RI is not just creating the structures, but hiring the people who can fill this space with creativity in the middle of the desert.”

Their visit was no secret to the students at Azraq. As they walked through the camp they were invited into classrooms where they spoke with the students who would soon be getting new places to study. A classroom of students sang them a song of gratitude. A young girl moving to Canada asked what life would be like there, and a teenager with flawless English shared plans to become an engineer. 

Cuturic attributes the success of the project to the level of personal care that Leutert and Shakked invested in it. They didn’t just sit back once the money was transferred. 

“We are just very happy we managed to help,” Leutert said. 

The three say they hope to see their shared passion and partnership grow stronger. 

“We made the right choice in working with Danijel and RI,” Shakked said. “We look forward to finding ways to work together next semester.”