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Viewpoints: Buffalo’s Summer Institute and I Am Syria program aim to repair world one classroom at a time

By Andrew Beiter
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

During the summer of 2009, 18-year-old Melody LeBeau, of Gowanda, planned on enjoying vacation and getting ready for her first year of studying international relations at SUNY Oswego State.

“I knew I wanted to change the world,” she said, “but in retrospect, wasn’t quite sure just how.”

Then her close friend Katie Kerker told her about the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies of Buffalo. Based on Kerker’s experience with this five-day leadership academy for high school students, LeBeau signed up, and soon found her answers on how to change the world.

After graduating from college, LeBeau was asked to intern for the Summer Institute – a Western New York program for high school students that is making an impact around the world.

As Kerker started her internship, the situation in Syria began to deteriorate, with the regime of Bashar al-Assad striking back against a citizen-led rebellion. David Crane, a former international war crimes prosecutor and current Syracuse University professor of international studies, envisioned a movement on behalf of the Syrian people that would attempt to keep their humanity alive to the world. As a frequent speaker at the Summer Institute, Crane knew the institute would have the leadership to address this issue in a way that would engage others to see the Syrian people in need of help as human beings, just like us. We called the program I Am Syria.

Led by LeBeau and Kerker, the Summer Institute interns helped set up a webpage (iamsyria.org), made a video and turned the I Am Syria program into one of the most influential organizations in the world, teaching people about the human cost of the conflict and how they can help.

The I Am Syria website usually gets over 15,000 hits a month, 3,000 of which are for its educational materials on how to teach about the conflict, its refugee crisis, the rise of ISIS and how students can help its victims.

“Teachers like our materials because our staff has made them student-friendly and capable of being used immediately. They are the most heavily trafficked resources of their kind on Google,” LeBeau said.

The I Am Syria website also caught the attention of Lara Setrakian, an oft-quoted expert on Syria featured on a Google+ video chat with Secretary of State John Kerry and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, regarding the Syrian crisis.

“For me,” said LeBeau, “the history of the Holocaust shows us very painfully what the cost of inaction is toward our fellow human beings. As webmaster for I Am Syria, I hope to remind the world that while this crisis might be overseas, it challenges all of us to reassess our own humanity, and to see that we are our brother’s keeper.”

Founded in 2008 by several Buffalo-area educators, the Summer Institute provides high school-age participants with the opportunity to hear human rights experts, historians and advocates like Crane, as well as take part in hands-on activities, discussions and field trips – all to inspire students to provide the inspiration, tools and confidence to lead a contributory life.

“We wanted our students to look at the history of change in our country and see themselves as capable of standing on the shoulders of others who have made the world a better place,” said Lori Raybold, a Hamburg High School English teacher who was part of the founding team.

“We knew that even in the best high schools, when students learned about leaders who addressed world problems, that learning was usually done in a passive way,” Raybold said. “We wanted to flip that equation, so instead of just surveying these situations, we could arm students with the historical knowledge, confidence and 21st-century skills to be active leaders themselves.”

Held at Erie 1 BOCES in West Seneca and sponsored by several community organizations, the Summer Institute has since gone on to train more than 350 students from virtually every private and public high school in Western New York, many of whom credit the program for being the inspiration that led to careers in law, journalism, medicine and public service.

One of those students was Canisius College international relations major Alie Iwanenko.

“The biggest thing I learned from the program is that human history is made by average people who have the courage to do extraordinary things,” she said.

The great-granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Iwanenko now tutors refugee children for the ENERGY program sponsored by the Westminster Economic Development Initiative.

“In working with refugees, I’m often struck by how similar they are to me. I’m shocked to see that the world’s reactions to the current refugee crises are unfortunately reminiscent of what happened to Jewish refugees during the 1930s,” Iwanenko said.

After graduation next spring, she hopes to work in community development. “Attending the Summer Institute has challenged me to use my education to be a leader.”

For Nardin graduate Hannah Malof, attending the Summer Institute had a similar effect. After being a student in the program for two years, she also went on to be an intern, and then work with refugees as an intern for Jewish Family Services of Buffalo.

“The Summer Institute taught me that things I once took for granted I now see as a privilege, and things I once saw as a privilege I now see as a right,” Malof said. “When I helped Syrian refugee families this summer, I saw that they’re here because they want to make a difference and improve themselves. If you take the time to break it down, they’re no different than anyone else. I would hope that someone would help me if I was in that situation.”

Now a sophomore at the University of Rochester studying public health, Malof said that Syrians and other refugees are often judged by unrealistic expectations.

“The Syrian people who are being forced to leave their country aren’t terrorists, but human beings, worthy of our respect, support and understanding,” she said. “The vetting process that’s in place allows our security and our humanity to be kept safe.”

In the end, the Summer Institute is all about inspiring the civic action that is the glue of our shared humanity and social fabric. The problems we face – both here at home and globally – require a sense of hope, anchored in the examples of those human rights defenders who came before us, so that the next generation might in turn push the bar of civilization a little bit higher.

“I know that my actions with I Am Syria matter,” said LeBeau, “and that the world depends on all of us to have the audacity to reach out on behalf of others.”

Andrew Beiter is a local educator who is co-founder and executive director of the Summer Institute, which can be found online at summerinstituteofbuffalo.org. Readers can learn more about the I Am Syria program bcy going to iamsyria.org.

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