Amin Ojjeh was confronted with the reality of the Syrian refugee crisis several years ago, at the age of 15, when his grandparents were forced to leave their home in Damascus and seek help in Lebanon. Living what he describes as a “relatively perfect” life in London, he could simply have raged against the injustice of their situation and carried on with his life.
But Amin is not like most teenagers. Still only 17, his grandparents’ experiences inspired him to co-found Helping Our People Endure (H.O.P.E.), a charity which helps Syrian refugees in Lebanon. To date, he has almost single-handedly raised more than $112,000 which so far has directly helped 435 families and 1,467 children.
Although he was raised in London, where he attends the American School in St John’s Wood, Amin thinks of himself as “100 per cent Syrian”. When the reality of the refugee crisis became apparent to him in July 2012, he and his school friend Trilok Sadarangani hatched a plan to create H.O.P.E., an entirely self-funded charity which would allow them to divert every penny of what they raised to the families in need.
Despite having to do their homework and prepare for exams like every other British teenager, Amin and Trilok make time to visit Lebanon two or three times a year, where they and a team of volunteers meet displaced Syrians in person to discuss exactly where the money they raise should go. Their speciality is children’s education, which Amin believes will ultimately prove to be one of the biggest casualties of the crisis.
“I noticed that a lot of the aid provided to Syrian refugees was mainly focused towards food and shelter – there was no meaningful impact on education,” he explains. “These are children who haven’t been in school for three, four years and no-one’s doing anything about it. There was a huge gap for aid and I saw it as an opportunity to step in and help. As a student, I truly see the benefit of education and how important it is. That’s part of our philosophy.”
With the help of the Lebanese charity Irshad and Islah, Amin and his fellow charity workers are put in touch with Syrian families who need money to survive. Although his focus is on education – 62 children have so far been sponsored by H.O.P.E. for full academic scholarships in Lebanese schools – he is also willing to support them in other ways.
“Not every family needs the same thing,” he says. “Some families can afford to pay for food but are unable to send their kids to school – others are unable to pay for food. It’s very much done on a family-to-family basis. What we try to do is accommodate every family as best as possible, to make the most meaningful impact.
“I don’t think many people realise that a lot of these refugees were part of the middle class only a few years ago – these people were teachers, doctors, drivers, living in apartments with a car and a family. Now they’re living in tents, barely able to afford food, barely able to feed their families. It’s a huge downgrade for them. As a Syrian, the most hurtful thing for me to see is this lost generation – a generation that has lost five, six years of education. It truly pains me.”
Although he plans to attend university in the US, Amin is keen to keep his charity going and grow it into a larger organisation. When it launched, few people in Europe were paying much attention to the refugee crisis – but then came the shocking image of Aylan Kurdi, the little boy found dead on a beach in Turkey, which this newspaper published on its front page. Amin acknowledges that the horror generated by the image sparked a long overdue “awakening” among the international community.
“What The Independent did was absolutely the right thing to do,” he says. “We have to highlight these tragedies to the communities we live in, because a lot of people won’t pay attention unless it’s put in front of their face. Sometimes a picture is worth more than a thousand words, and it wakes a lot of people up. The Independent and other news outlets have been covering the Syrian crisis for a while now, and I’m very happy to see that, it makes me very proud.”
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