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Youth Taking Action: Serving Iraqi refugees

Ashoka's Youth Venturer Sky Choi is one busy 12-year-old. Apart from starting The List Kids to serve young Iraqi refugees in the U.S. he is also starting his university studies in physics, speaks multiple languages, has a third degree black belt in taekwondo, and says that he hopes to always make a difference in the world!

He started The List Kids in 2007 to help serve a forgotten population - the Iraqis who assisted the U.S. Military and had to flee Iraq for their personal safety. Sky has raised awareness of the challenges that these families have faced and provided their children with monthly care packages.

We spoke with Sky about his work with The List Kids, the importance of raising awareness and creating understanding between different communities, and how kids can welcome other children in need to their new country.

Why did you start List Kids? Why is it needed?

I founded The List Kids in order to reach out to the Iraqi refugee children who are resettled in the US in connection with The List Project. Their parents risked their lives working as advisors, interpreters, clerks, and construction workers, alongside American soldiers.  Many US-affiliated Iraqis have been kidnapped, beaten and killed; many others were forced to flee to neighboring countries. A small number make it through the long and difficult screening process and are able to resettle here in the US.  It is very difficult for the Iraqi refugee families when they arrive here as they have to not only adjust to a new culture, but find homes and jobs as well. While there are various agencies that provide limited support in terms of food and housing, no one was addressing the needs of the children.  That is why I founded the List Kids.  For their first year in the US, the List Kids sends a special care package every month to each child in order to let them know that they are welcome and safe here. The care packages contain cards, letters, school supplies, toys, books, gaming systems and other items that are donated from companies and volunteers across the US. Our goal is to help make their transition to life in the US a little easier.

You serve a lot of kids, where do you get all the donations and support to put together the care packages?

In April 2008, I shipped the first set of care packages ---there were 14 Iraqi refugee children on our list in April 2008.  To date, we have shipped over 700 care packages, and we currently send over 110 care packages to children each month.  People from all over the country have donated items to be included in the care packages. One way is through The List Kids' "wish lists" on both Amazon.com and Target.com where people can shop online for items to donate to The List Kids.  The List Kids also has a chapter with over 130 members on Netroots, social networking site. Some of the members make cards to include in the care packages and help raise funds to cover the postage costs, which is our biggest expense and can run up to $1000 a month.  The List Kids also has several corporate sponsors.  Penguin Books donated 1000 pounds of books.  Teschkeel Media donated 250 annual subscriptions to the comic book series, "The 99."  Independent Means has provided and amazing summer camp for two Iraqi refugee children for the past two summers.  And most recently, Talking Fingers has offered subscriptions to its amazing online program called "Read, Write & Type," a program helps kids learn to read and write in English.  I run the day-to-day operations of The List Kids, but I could not get the care packages out each month without the help of my two cousins, Christian and Cayla Reis.

I imagine it is hard to for most people to understand the reality of what life is like for Iraqi refugee children. How have US kids responded to your project?

I think the average American knows very little about the Iraqi refugee crisis in general and even less about the dangers faced by those who risked their lives and the lives of their families helping our soldiers in Iraq.  It is very difficult to get people interested in this cause.  I think there are two main reasons for this.  First, because of the bad economic situation in our own country, many people have taken the approach of looking out only for themselves.  Charities across the nation have suffered a severe decline in support since the end of last year.  While it is understandable that people are concerned about their own financial situations, I don't feel it is right to simply turn our backs on these families that are in danger because they helped the US.

The second problem is ignorance.  I think people fear what they do not understand or know.  Until this past year, I had never met someone from Iraq before.  I think that is likely the same for many Americans.  After 9-11, our lives changed and many Americans now look through at people, especially those from Middle Eastern countries, through a lens of fear associated with terrorism.  I bet that if people were able to meet these families they would see that they have far more in common than not.  They are moms and dads, brothers and sisters, and grandparents.  They worry about employment.  They worry about school and making friends.  They worry about life in their new country --- a country they willingly served and risked their lives for.

I have faith though that people will understand that we are dealing with children, who did not choose to live through a war and did not choose to live as refugees.  Last week, my cousin donated his Playstation to The List Kids instead of selling it.  His five-year-old sister, clearly not wishing the Playstation was leaving her home, asked me why we help the Iraqi kids.  I explained to her how these children have lived through a war and have ended up here with very little.  They often have no books or toys when they arrive.  Sometimes they don't even have a bed!  She looked at me and said, "Oh, I understand.  This is the right thing to do."  If a five year old can understand that this is the "right thing to do," I am optimistic that others will understand as well.

What has been the outcome of your work between the refugee community and the US students? In what ways do you hope that your project will have long-term impact on the participants?

Spreading the word about the plight of the US-affiliated Iraqis is so important.  Most people know very little about what the List Project families have been through.  I hope that through my blog and public speaking appearances that I can help change this.  I have found that kids seem the most willing to help.  Check out my blog entry titled "Greenglades Elementary Rocks!" as an example of how students have received the message.

When I speak with students at schools or various student groups, the response has always been great.  They have made some of the coolest cards for the care packages.  They have volunteered to collect ink cartridges for recycling to raise funds and to assist with putting the care packages together each month.  Most kids don't care about the political issues; they only care about helping other kids in need.  They know what it is like to be the "new kid" in a school and can relate to how hard it is to make friends.  Many students, especially in Miami, know how hard it is to come to a new country and have to learn a new language, get used to new foods, and figure out how to fit in.  A connection is made because we focus on what we have in common, not on the ways we are different.

Who or what inspired you to start List Kids? Is your inspiration the same today as it was when you started?

There were two main inspirations for starting The List Kids.  The first person that inspired me is someone that I have never met.  I don't even know his name.  He is an Iraqi boy my age.  My mother represents his family and, through The List Project, is helping them through the resettlement process.  She told me about how he had been kidnapped and held for a week until his family could raise enough money to free him.  He was kidnapped because his father worked with an American team rebuilding schools in Iraq.  His family fled from Iraq to Syria where he lived in a one room apartment with his parents and siblings.  They did not have enough money for him to go to school.  They barely had enough money to pay for food.  As refugees, his parents were prohibited from working while in Syria.  After two years, they ran out of money and were forced to return to Iraq, even though it was still dangerous because of his father's prior employment with the US.  His father resumed working for an US agency and they continue to live in danger, waiting for their day to come live safely in the US.  I cannot even begin to imagine what this boy's life is like.  His story made me realize that the kids that were lucky enough to be resettled here had also been through so much.  I knew I wanted to help in some way so I came up with the idea of The List Kids.

I contacted Kirk Johnson and told him my idea of sending care packages.  Kirk is the second person who really inspired me to take action.  He is an amazing guy.  If you have not read his story, you really need to do so: http://www.thelistproject.org/AUaboutkirk.html.  He started out by helping one interpreter that he had worked with at USAID in Iraq and now spends just about every waking moment helping thousands of US-affiliated Iraqi refugees.  It has been amazing to see how one person can have such a huge impact on the lives of so many people.  Kirk truly is one of those inspiring people that not only does remarkable things in his own right, but he also has the power to inspire others to go beyond what they thought possible.  I am extremely grateful for his support and his friendship.

What are your plans for the project? And how do you foresee yourself continuing your work?

I plan to continue running The List Kids as long as the need for it exists.  At some point, all The List Project families will have made it to the US and The List Kids' original mission will be complete.  I am not sure whether I will continue to do work with refugees or whether I will take on some other causes that are important to me.  I can only tell you that I will always find a way to hopefully make a difference in the world around me.  I know that one person can make a difference.

Get to know other young social entrepreneurs by reading their stories and seeing videos of them in action at http://genvcampaigns.org/

If you are a young person between the ages of 12-20 and want to create positive change in your community join the global movement of young changemakers at http://genv.net/

Source: http://socialentrepreneurship.change.org/blog/view/youth_taking_action_serving_iraqi_refugees

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Posted in: News by Puchiko on July 25, 2009 @ 7:18 PM

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