With support from a Lawrenceville School Welles Award, Summer Qureshi ’22 has edited and illustrated a new book, “Unsilenced: Voices of Refugee Children” The text features the stories of refugee children who Qureshi met through her volunteer work with the GiveLight Foundation.
How did you get involved with the GiveLight Foundation? What made you interested in getting involved and how did you begin working with them?
I got involved with the GiveLight Foundation before my junior year during COVID. Because of the pandemic, I realized I had far more free time than before that I could use in more meaningful ways to interact and support the communities around me, especially those affected by the pandemic. Unlike many other large foundations, GiveLight values meaningful connections with the children and gives every child the chance to explore their interests through art or singing. In other words, GiveLight always puts the kids first. When I joined the GiveLight Intern team, I knew I wanted to work directly with the kids the GiveLight Foundation supported through their homes across the world.
Were you able to travel to Turkey to teach Syrian and Iraqi refugee children?
Ideally, I would have loved to travel to Turkey and work with the Syrian and Iraqi refugee children directly. Unfortunately because I received this grant my junior year, COVID was still quite unpredictable and Turkey was under lockdown, so the kids were not even at the main home center. Instead, we were challenged to think outside the box and the children and I worked together continuously over Zoom. Because the kids were each staying at different locations, I grew worried about internet issues and whether we would still meaningfully connect, but their synergy and passion truly bridged the gap between our physical distances. Beyond our storytelling workshops, the kids and I just wanted to interact and bond as people. The point of our storytelling workshops was for the children to speak and feel heard.
How did you decide to write a book from your experiences?
When I began serving as an English teacher to the Syrian refugee and orphan children in Turkey through GiveLight, I never imagined how much the children would impact me. During our first class, I asked my students to write about themselves so we could know each other better.
The next class, when they each wanted to read their stories aloud, I expected to hear about their favorite sports and game, but instead they shared narratives far more powerful. Some children at the GiveLight home shared how much they valued family after losing a parent during the war, while others wanted to return to Syria and fight for human rights despite being blinded during the war. They really embodied the resilient spirit of the person I hoped to become, yet people rarely hear their voices. Through our book, we wanted to change the power dynamics of who should be heard.
After hosting storytelling workshops with the children, guiding them to write their stories from their perspectives, I compiled and edited their stories from their perspectives. At times the process of creating the book was challenging and required me to think creatively. One of the biggest challenges was capturing the personality of each child through the book’s images and the children’s names. Because the children still had relatives in Syria or Iraq, I could not use the children’s real names or their pictures, so instead I chose a name whose meaning captured their personality and created illustrations for each child that captured his/her dreams and goals. I also applied concepts from my Lawrenceville Merrill Scholar experience focused on translation theory and studies to preserve an author’s original words and connotations. For this reason, in the book, I kept the children’s original Arabic words alongside their English translations to ensure that the children were truly represented the way they desired.
What did you learn from the whole experience of taking the students' stories and helping put them together in this book?
I titled the book “Unsilenced: Voices of Children Refugees” intentionally because before they are Syrian, refugees, or orphans, they are children. From working with these brave kids, I realized they are far greater than their stories and the challenges they have faced- their dreams and goals are also part of their identity. I wanted to capture this idea in the book through my illustrations capturing each child’s dreams and by breaking the chapters to highlight these different facets of their identities, beginning the book with their stories and current experiences but ending the book with their dreams and messages to the readers.
What do you want people to know about your book and your experience working with the students?
As I wrote at the end of my introduction to the book, “We are linked not only by our history, but also by our choice to interact and listen to one another’s experiences. By reading their stories, you are linking part of your identity with these brave, young refugee children.” The book is truly just a stepping stone to changing diverse representation, one that can only exist when we give marginalized groups the platform to represent themselves.
What do you hope readers learn from your book?
I wish every reader realizes we have a role in supporting children of all faiths, races, and backgrounds when their lives are disrupted by political turmoil. I hope this book serves two purposes: first, for the children to speak and feel heard by the reader who chooses to listen, and second to foster stronger global connections in all communities.
I was honored that GiveLight believed in my vision for this project and that their CEO, Ms. Dian Alyan, gave me unconditional access to the students, making this idea a reality. I am also grateful to Lawrenceville for the Welles Grant and to my [English] teachers Mrs. [Bernadette] Teeley and Mrs. [Enithie] Hunter for encouraging my efforts. The Welles Grant motivated me to explore new directions with these students in designing advocacy platforms through literature. I will be donating 80% of the profits back to the GiveLight center and its children to continue supporting refugee and orphan work for children globally. In the future, especially with the ongoing heartbreaking Ukrainian crisis, I want to create another book.
What would you tell other Lawrenceville students interested in applying for a Welles Grant?
I would tell other students interested in applying for a Welles Grant that this is probably one of the best opportunities I had at Lawrenceville, allowing you to explore avenues you are truly passionate about with the grant serving as an outstretched hand to support your efforts.
For additional information, please contact Lisa M. Gillard, director of public relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
that captures the stories of unheard refugee children from new regions, detailing their comparative cultural experiences.