A display case that the author helped create at the University of Evansville. Picture Credit: Scholars For Syria

“We are encouraging a generation to spread kindness and acceptance”

University of Evansville alumni Hannah Richardson reflects on co-founding Scholars For Syria.

By Hannah Richardson
Cisco Systems
University of Evansville 2016

In August of 2012, I moved to the cornfields of Indiana to begin my freshman year of college at the University of Evansville. Eager to learn about the world beyond the Midwest, I walked into our student union on the first day of orientation with my mind drifting to dreams of semesters abroad. To my surprise, I met my very first friend that day, and he was a Syrian.

At this time, the Syrian conflict had been growing for a few years, but it seemed a threat confined to the Middle East, not relevant to daily life in America. However, as I soon realized in my international relations course with Dr. Milner and my conversations with my new Syrian friend, it was much more than civil unrest; it was a tragedy effecting generations of men, women, and children.

It wasn’t by mere coincidence that the lonely boy sitting on the sofa that day in August was a young Syrian scholar. Even fewer universities offered scholarships to Syrians four years ago than today. However, because of the hard work and dedication of the faculty at the University of Evansville, my friend was able to begin his collegiate studies in a safe and supporting community.

Fast-forward to 2016, and our small private school can now proudly say that we’ve helped 25 Syrian students find a safe haven in America, so that they can continue their education and pursue their dreams. Each of them has a unique story, yet there is a common thread among them: they are grateful. No matter the headline, the latest news of tragedy in their country, or the pain they feel from missing their families, these Syrian students have a response of gratefulness and hope. I have been fortunate to become very close with a few of them, and their perspective on life has certainly influenced my own. Often, I find myself a weeping pool of emotions, enraged by the actions of the Syrian and Russian regimes, saddened by the destruction of a country, mourning for the loss of life, and aching to help the lost generation of refugee children. Yet in these times of intense emotion, it is my Syrian friends that support me, who raise me back up and incite hope and strength. They are resilient, they are passionate, and they are brave.

It is because of this disposition of kindness and gratitude that the Syrians studying at UE have been so welcomed into the campus and the community. I believe that even the most xenophobic of Americans would change their views if they had a single meaningful conversation with one of our Syrian students. It is through this mission of spreading awareness and promoting peace that Scholars for Syria was born.

In the fall of my senior year, after years of feeling like I was a bystander to the atrocities in Syria, one of my close Syrian friends introduced me to a professor at UE who wasn’t responding in silence to the cries of Syria. When I met Gail Vignola, director of the writing center at UE and American mother to the Syrians in Evansville, she was already collaborating with both American and Syrian students to create an organization to support our Syrian scholars and their families, as well as engage the greater Evansville community in a dialogue about the Syrian crisis. I immediately offered my marketing expertise and jumped on-board as a co-founder of Scholars for Syria.

Now, as we approach the first anniversary of Scholars for Syria, I can’t help but beam with pride at the amount we’ve accomplished in a single year. At UE, it’s about more than just offering scholarships to Syrian students. We are encouraging a generation to spread kindness and acceptance, we are educating our community on the Syrian war, and we are building bridges between cultures instead of barriers. The power of Scholars for Syria comes from the hearts of our Syrian students, and the hearts of those they’ve touched. I am grateful for my university not just for changing the lives of 25 young Syrians, but for changing my own.

I encourage you to get involved in your own community, to support Syrian families and spread a message of peace. Please visit our website www.scholarsforsyria.com for more information on our cause.