Student’s kindness, outpouring of support helps Syrian families feel at home in Rhode Island

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RIVERSIDE — Alyah Achabi, a sophomore at St. Mary Academy – Bay View, may be soft-spoken, but her selfless actions speak volumes.

Last February, Achabi was among those waiting at the airport to welcome Syrian families resettling in Rhode Island. She recalled the emotion and excitement witnessing families arriving in the Ocean State. For Achabi, being able to offer immediate kindness to make the mothers, fathers and children feel at home as they escaped civil war was something she would never forget and something that would continue to inspire her.

As a Syrian American, Achabi is passionate about helping refugees and bringing awareness to a crisis that continues to affect her family and millions of others. She recently took the initiative to lend a helping hand by starting a collection for household supplies which Syrian refugees living in Rhode Island would need. Through Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island in Providence and with help from her school community, the teenager collected more than two carloads of items that will supply families with what they need to get started in their new homes.

“I wanted to bring awareness,” she said. “I was always really proud of where my dad is from and visited Syria many times. It affected me a lot because my cousins still live there and they have to endure the war. They are living in an area that’s dangerous but I am still able to talk to them as often as I can.”

Alyah advertised the collection throughout the Academy with flyers and notes in morning messages, asking her classmates, faculty and staff to help.

“We just asked people to donate anything that would make a home feel like a home,” explained Achabi, who collected clothing, toiletries, bed and bath linens, dinnerware and cookware. “The families coming here are not afraid of America, but because it’s a new country they don’t know what to expect. We want them to feel at home.”

At the beginning of Advent, Sterk Zaza of Dorcas International, joined Achabi in speaking to the students. Zaza, a Rhode Islander who was born in Syria, offered students a firsthand account of her family, the people she has left behind and lost through the Syrian war. She told of the families living in the midst of the devastation.

On the day that Achabi spoke to her school community about the drive, a Syrian student approached her in tears.

“She told me that her family is also in Syria and how hard it is for her,” she said. “We connected immediately because we know the feeling. We were both crying.”

“A lot of people might not know about the war or they might have certain ideas about refugees, especially from the Middle East. I just wanted to show that not everyone is bad or fits a negative stereotype, I just wanted to show that we can help make a difference even from across the world. I want to do what I can to make the situation a bit better.”

Campus Minister and teacher Sister Elizabeth Hathaway, RSM, helped Achabi coordinate her project and explained how exciting it is to know that her students are aware and in touch with what is happening around the world and in their own local community.

“When a student takes initiative like this you really listen up. I am so proud of her and continue to be,” said Sister Hathaway. “Bay View is always good to respond to the needs of others. I was so excited that this really took off. It’s one of the proudest moments for this year.”