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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.

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    Alexis Hurd-Shires stands with some of her students on the campus of Middle East University, outside Beirut, Lebanon.
    Courtesy of Tami Giebel/Bourj Hammoud Adventist Learning Center
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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.

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.

Recommended: Syria in crisis: The main parties to the conflict

“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.

Recommended: Syria in crisis: The main parties to the conflict

“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.”

• Learn more at bit.ly/BourjCenter.

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.

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