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Change their stories: Get involved in Microsoft Philanthropies and nonprofit work to support refugees. Change their stories: Get involved in Microsoft Philanthropies and nonprofit work to support refugees. Change their stories: Get involved in Microsoft Philanthropies and nonprofit work to support refugees.

Let’s help young refugees achieve their dreams

More than 65 million people have fled their homes to escape violence and persecution. Of the 22 million who are refugees, sadly over half are under the age of 18. In recognition of World Refugee Day, we’re honored to share the remarkable stories of five courageous youth who remain hopeful, despite perilous journeys and daunting circumstances. Working together, we can change their stories, and help other young refugees achieve their dreams.

Azeh

Azeh

In a refugee camp in Jordan, Syria-born Azeh overcomes trauma and dreams of becoming a teacher.

Learning to hope again

In a refugee camp in Jordan, Syria-born Azeh overcomes trauma and dreams of becoming a teacher. In a refugee camp in Jordan, Syria-born Azeh overcomes trauma and dreams of becoming a teacher.

A teacher inspires this 12-year-old Syrian refugee to lead future generations.

In a corrugated metal building in Zaatari, a Jordanian camp near the Syrian border, a small group of girls forms a circle. They stretch their arms up, their fingers nearly brushing the brightly colored paper chains decorating the ceiling. Twelve-year-old Azeh grins at her teacher Khawla, and her smile is as expansive as her wide-open arms.

Since coming to this camp of 80,000 refugees, Azeh has transformed from a withdrawn young woman to an outgoing, confident leader who wants to someday become a teacher like her role model, Khawla. Roughly 2.5 million Syrian children like Azeh have been forced out of their homes since the civil war there began. They have left behind family, friends, school, and everything they have ever known. Although no one can erase the hardships they’ve endured, the youth centers in this sprawling refugee camp provide a safe place for children to process trauma, and a nurturing link between the shattered past and a hopeful future.

Azeh’s connection to her teacher Khawla—also a Syrian refugee—was not forged by accident. Mercy Corps, the nonprofit organization that runs the youth center Azeh attends, works with Syrian adults to teach leadership, computer skills, sports, art and other subjects to young refugees like Azeh. Developing deep relationships with role models who come from the same country can make all the difference, providing hope for a better life.

"I would like to be a teacher. I want to be like Khawla, someone who makes others laugh and talk, always open to others."

“I build a good relationship with [the girls] and help them feel that they are heard,” says Khawla, who was a primary school teacher in Syria before fleeing to Jordan with her own seven children. Acknowledging the trauma of the past—yet validating a child’s goals for the future—can be profoundly healing.

Displaced youth face alienation and psychological issues from living under constant stress. Community centers give refugee children the opportunity to simply be a kid. Azeh is evidence of the transformation these programs make possible. “I hope I will be happy,” the fifth grader says. “I would like to be a teacher. I want to be like Khawla, someone who makes others laugh and talk, always open to others.”

Khawla knows her student can do it. “I always encourage the kids about the importance of education to build their future,” she says. “Azeh can attain her wish if she continues her education.”

Azeh is one inspiring example of how a safe space gives refugee children room to grow—and to follow their dreams. She’s pursuing her education, but she’s also learning to trust adults again, to feel safe in the world. While she paints murals, practices English and laughs with her new friends, she’s also gaining the confidence that she can one day inspire others, too.

Syrian youth Yousef trains in a refugee camp community center to become a champion wrestler.

Gold medals, silver linings and big dreams

Syrian youth Yousef trains in a refugee camp community center to become a champion wrestler. Syrian youth Yousef trains in a refugee camp community center to become a champion wrestler.

Playing sports at a refugee community center lent this teen the optimism to transform the camp.

In a makeshift gym in the middle of the Jordanian desert, a young man completes yet another set of pull-ups—anything to give him an edge over the competition. Yousef, a 15-year-old refugee from Syria, takes training seriously because he knows what wrestling and martial arts can give him: a new future.

Yousef fled his home in Dara’a with his parents and nine siblings four years ago when the city—ground zero in the Syrian civil war—became too deadly. In stark contrast, this small gym has become a sanctuary of stability and inspiration to hundreds of children and their families. It is here that Yousef sweats and sprints toward his dream: becoming a champion of competitive martial arts and a coach who helps other boys achieve greatness.

Yousef wasn’t always this determined. After he joined the roughly 80,000 other Syrian refugees in the Zataari camp, Yousef fell into a deep depression. “I had no house, no friends, no place to play,” he says. The camp, and his prospects, felt bleak.

But when he and his brothers discovered the Mercy Corps-run youth sports program, he gained an entirely new outlook. “Every day, I see young people surrender to despair and lose hope; I remember myself when I first arrived here,” Yousef says. But at the Mercy Corps youth center, “I learned that I can manage myself under pressure and be an active member in my family and new community.”

"My first gold medal gave me confidence and determination to work even harder. I know I will have a great future."

In addition to becoming a martial arts champion, Yousef wants to be a coach at the international level like his mentors, the Syrian wrestling phenomenon Mohammed Al-Krad and his brother, Farhan. The coaches encourage Yousef to not only practice take-downs and bicep curls but to also open up about his past, channeling his frustration into sports. They insist that the boys transfer the respect they give each other on the mat to everyone they meet.

Yousef says that winning wrestling matches at the youth center gives him a glimpse of what he can achieve beyond the barbed wire fences of Zaatari. “My first gold medal gave me confidence and determination to work even harder,” he says. “I know I will have a great future.”

South Sudanese refugee Joann lives in a camp in Uganda with her sister and foster mother.

Finding safety, hope and the chance to start a new life

South Sudanese refugee Joann lives in a camp in Uganda with her sister and foster mother. South Sudanese refugee Joann lives in a camp in Uganda with her sister and foster mother.

With the support of a foster mother’s love, this South Sudanese orphan shifts her focus from survival to education.

When fighting broke out in her village in South Sudan, Joann shepherded her pre-teen sister away from violence—and away from home. They escaped with nothing but their lives. With no food, they drank from streams, slept under trees and journeyed south until they crossed the border into Uganda. There they found their first good fortune: In the emergency shelter they met Joyce, another South Sudanese refugee, who took the scared, hungry orphans under her wing. Under the protection of her new foster mother, 15-year-old Joann finally feels safe, loved and free to dream of a more promising future.

Joann is just one of 875,000 South Sudanese refugees—most of them children—who have sought shelter in Uganda as the conflict and famine continue in their home country. Joann’s early role as caregiver is not unique, either: Many children cross borders as orphans or separated from family, and older siblings sometimes take on responsibilities that seem outsized for their small shoulders.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) provides aid to refugees around the world, including in Uganda. The support allows refugees like Joann regain their footing so they can pursue a path toward a better future.

"I want to be a doctor so I can help people in need. I will treat people who are sick."

For Joann, that brighter tomorrow includes education—in part so she can help others, too. “School makes me happy,” she says. “When I was in school before the war, this is when I was happiest.” Having her immediate needs met—food, shelter, and safety—enables Joann to look ahead to the education that will lead to her ultimate dream, becoming a physician.

“I want to be a doctor so I can help people in need,” Joann says. “I will treat people who are sick.”

Both of her parents died from HIV, leaving Joann and her sister to live with a grandmother until the elderly relative could no longer keep them safe from the looting, burning, and shooting that plagues South Sudan. Joann adopted the role of caregiver, soothing her sister’s swollen legs and terrified spirit during their long trek to safety.

Now that they have found safety and a maternal protector in Joyce, this intrepid refugee girl can turn her attention to school and making friends, instead of basic survival. “You have to leave the bad things in the past,” Joyce tells Joann. “Everything that happened in Sudan—leave there. What you should have in your mind is study. In the future you will succeed and be a good person.”

'I want to be a software engineer,' says a sign held by Syrian refugee Nabil, whose family relocated to the United States.

“I feel safe. And I feel welcome.”

'I want to be a software engineer,' says a sign held by Syrian refugee Nabil, whose family relocated to the United States. 'I want to be a software engineer,' says a sign held by Syrian refugee Nabil, whose family relocated to the United States.

This young refugee is making his new home in the United States a more inclusive place.

When you ask 16-year-old Nabil about his favorite thing about living in America, you’ll discover how much he loves playing forward on his high school soccer team. His favorite courses in school are the computer classes where he’s learning how to program, not just play video games. And he loves donuts—lots and lots of chocolate donuts.

While Seattle’s notorious damp weather doesn’t make his list, the city has become home for Nabil and his family. They settled here by way of Jordan after they fled their home in Homs, Syria, which has been called “the capital of the revolution,” where civilians had become common collateral damage in the country’s civil war. Nabil’s father decided that the family—including Nabil, his brother and two younger sisters—had to leave before they, too, suffered unimaginable losses.

“My father wants us to have a good life and good future,” Nabil says. “That has become true, because now we are safe in Seattle. I feel safe. And I feel welcome here.” Settling in the United States has provided Nabil and his family with a chance to start fresh in a welcoming community, free of fear. The new setting has also brought Nabil closer to achieving his dream—to become a software engineer—and to his passion for helping others.

"My father wants us to have a good life and good future. That has become true, because now we are safe in Seattle. I feel safe. And I feel welcome here."

The transition from Syria to rainy Seattle was challenging for Nabil and his family, but the humanitarian nonprofit International Rescue Committee has made them feel welcome. The organization helped the family find a home and the children register for school. They also ran special programs for recent transplants like Nabil, in which the kids got to cheer for the Seattle Sounders and visit the aquarium where they witnessed an octopus and otters for the first time.

Nabil is striving to make Seattle even more welcoming for incoming refugees and his American-born neighbors. The 10th grader has volunteered with a local Muslim organization, offering food and water to local homeless people as they waited to get haircuts and new clothes. And he acts as an informal guide for new classmates, translating assignments, explaining confusing class schedules and reassuring them that the English proficiency test isn’t as scary as it seems.

Helping newcomers is a family commitment. They all work together to host Syrian meals, take friends to appointments and show families around the neighborhood because they remember how comforting it was to grasp a hand outstretched in kindness. “We are family. Together, we can help them,” Nabil says.

Giving back makes him feel good. “I feel happy to see people smiling and laughing, not sad from the things that happened in Syria.” Building community helps Nabil grow roots here in Seattle. He hopes to eventually visit friends and loved ones in the Middle East, but he says his move to the United States is permanent. While he dreams of peace in his home country, he is making his American home a more welcoming place.

Rohingya teen Shamshidah attends a school for refugees in Malaysia with her sister.

The education and willpower to build a better future

Rohingya teen Shamshidah attends a school for refugees in Malaysia with her sister. Rohingya teen Shamshidah attends a school for refugees in Malaysia with her sister.

Shamshidah started school at age 14. She hopes to study computers and give back to those who need it most.

Like many children, Shamshidah was nervous on her first day of school. But unlike most young people, her anxiety came from the fact that she was 14 and had never been to school.

Shamshidah is Rohingya, an ethnic minority of Myanmar denied citizenship and targeted by violence. She and her family fled persecution and eventually found their way to Malaysia. They had no official papers, no money, and no education—other than occasional math lessons from their father.

Half of the refugees in the world are children, and half of those don’t get the chance to attend school. The statistics for Rohingya are even more dire, with nearly three-quarters of all children denied a basic education. Since coming to Malaysia, however, Shamshidah has been able to attend a small school supported by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

"Even if your parents don’t let you study, learn from your friends. If you don’t have money, work and use the money to study. Study hard, even until you are grown up. Study!"

The opportunity to finally begin her education has been a turning point for Shamshidah. Beyond learning to read and write, she feels like she has begun to forge a path for her whole family. Her parents see her schooling as a way to lift up her siblings—and even the Rohingya community at large.

“Wherever I go, I don’t know how to read—I don’t know the way to do anything,” Shamshidah’s mother says. “I don’t want [my children] to be like me. That is why I give them an education.”

Shamshidah knows that an education is the key to a more promising future—especially for refugees and marginalized people like her family. She is studying English, science and drawing, but it’s mathematics that she loves. It should come as no surprise, then, that she is passionate about technology. “If I study a lot, I can get a job,” she says. “I want to study computers because in the computer you can gain knowledge.”

Having watched her friends drop out of school to work in the market, care for siblings or even enter an early marriage, Shamshidah vows to get an education, no matter how long it takes. “Even if your parents don’t let you study, learn from your friends,” she says. “If you don’t have money, work and use the money to study. Study hard, even until you are grown up. Study!”

Ultimately, Shamshidah wants to give back—not by helping her brothers and sisters learn, but by providing for her community. “If I have money, I want to give it to my parents. And if there are people who cannot eat or drink, I want to give it to them.”

How can you help refugees?

So, what can you do to make a difference for Yousef, Joann, and others? It can be difficult to know where to start. That's why we partner with trusted humanitarian organizations that work every day to provide aid and support to displaced people around the world.

How former refugees enrich their new countries with hope, resilience and grit

Farhad Agajan was only 8 when he was forced to flee Afghanistan alone. After a decade-long journey, he found a new home in Greece, where he's now learning to code and helping other refugees as a Mercy Corps field officer.

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