The Concordia Syrian Students Association raises thousands for refugees
Since civil war erupted in Syria in March 2011, more than four million citizens have fled to neighbouring countries, and a further seven million have been internally displaced. The Syrian exodus is the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
Every Friday for the past four years, the Concordia Syrian Students Association (SSA) has been holding bake sales to raise money for the conflict’s victims.
“I would love to have the powers of nations, but I don't, so the only way I know how to make a difference here is to raise awareness and money,” says Kinan Swaid, a third-year Mechanical Engineering student at Concordia and president of the SSA.
Since the beginning of the year the SSA has donated $7,414 to the Syrian Kids Foundation, having raised $6,440 from their bake sales alone. Moreover they collected a further $512 during their emergency relief fundraiser, which went towards the A Heart for Syria association.
This is on top of the tens of thousands of dollars already raised in previous years through theatrical productions of the SSA original Let’s Talk.
“When we first started the bake sales the president at the time would collect the money and travel to Lebanon himself where he would buy supplies and distribute them to refugees,” says Swaid, who notes Lebanon, a country of only 4.5 million people, harbours more than one million refugees.
Since then the SSA has formed close ties with the Syrian Kids Foundation (SKF), a Montreal-based organization that has become the association’s primary beneficiary.
The SKF’s flagship project, the Al Salam School, is a Canadian-funded school in Reyhanli, Turkey, a mile from the Syrian border. It provides free education to 2,000 students aged six to 17.
Earlier this year, in partnership with SKF, Concordia committed to sponsoring the post-secondary education of two students from the Al Salam School.
“We believe that the future of Syria will depend on education,” says Swaid.
“When you see that the majority of the refugees today are kids, orphans who don't know how to read, don't know how to write, there is no future for Syria. There is no future without education because these are the people that are going to return to Syria one day and rebuild it.”
Swaid found that forming a partnership with the SKF was an easy decision for the student association.
“Part of the donations go toward the salaries of teachers at the school, who are also refugees,” he says.
“So you create this system that helps the refugee population become self-sufficient. With salaries, they can live, work, and wait until hopefully Syria becomes okay one day. Meanwhile the kids get to learn, and become ready to be part of the world. It’s not only about the immediate; it’s also about what’s going to happen down the line.”
The SSA has also teamed up with McGill’s Syrian Students Association.
“We each have our own volunteers, but we support each other — we collaborate. It's a network and I think it's helping us achieve one of our goals, which is to unite and reconcile the Syrian community here in Montreal,” Swaid says.
Born in France to a Syrian family, Swaid came to Canada in 2012. He has seen Syria's civil strife cause rifts within the diaspora.
Swaid hopes that newly arrived refugees will see the association as a safe, neutral environment where they can find help and support.
“Our mission is strictly humanitarian, and the solution is known. We want to give refugees food, housing, education — the humanitarian solution is clear. The political solution, not at all,” he says, adding that many refugees in Montreal are afraid to be tied to anything remotely anti-regime because it could endanger family members still in Syria.
“We are and will remain a non-political body, but at the same time there is a place for political discussion and debate within the university, which is why we hold talks from time to time,” says Swaid.
On October 16, the SSA helped organize a panel discussion, “Knocking on Europe’s Doors”, which drew approximately 800 students.
“We played a short documentary from The Guardian, and we heard people crying and the spike in interest after the event was huge. Our inbox was full with people wanting to help, wanting to volunteer and donate,” says Swaid.
“Just from that one event we raised $1,074 … It’s inspiring and awesome.”
Currently, the SSA has several projects in the works in response to Justin Trudeau’s commitment to bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by the end of the year.
Swaid says the association plans to establish a Syrian Refugee Scholarship, with help from Concordia’s Advancement and Alumni Relations. The association is also working with SSA McGill to put together a Syrian-Montreal Fund, which will respond to the needs of refugees in Montreal.
“Sometimes when refugees arrive they aren't living in the best situations,” says Swaid.
“They might need small, everyday things like an OPUS card or money to buy books for school, and we want to be able to give them those things to help them integrate and grow.
“Since the beginning of October we’ve made more than $6,000 from bake sales and $1,000 from our event. The support is amazing. That's when you know you're not working alone.”
The Concordia Syrian Students Association (SSA) holds bake sales every Friday on the 7th floor of the Henry F. Hall Building, from noon to 3 p.m., and on the 2nd floor from noon to 6 p.m. The SSA encourages interested students to reach out to the association through email or Facebook, or to donate to the Syrian Kids Foundation.