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This Millennial Couple Started A Non-Profit To Help Syrian Refugees

Lexi Shereshewsky and Demetri Blaisdell are not your average couple. They're based in New York City, fluent in Arabic and the co-founders of The Syria Fund, a young non-profit dedicated to addressing the ongoing refugee crisis.

The Syria Fund works alongside local partners to help provide material support for refugees while working to expand educational opportunities for Syrian children.

Lexi and Demetri met in college while studying abroad in Egypt. After graduating, they moved to Syria together for two years and completely fell in love with the country. They departed Syria in 2010, not long before the situation there took a turn for the worse.

Since 2011, Syria has been consumed by war, violence and destruction. Nearly a quarter of a million people have lost their lives and around 12 million more have been forcibly displaced.

Currently, there are around seven to eight million internally displaced Syrians and around four million Syrian refugees.

It was very difficult for Lexi and Demetri to see a country they'd come to know as a second home ravaged by violent conflict, which is precisely why they founded The Syria Fund. They couldn't stand idly by as a country full of people who'd welcomed them with open arms continued to suffer.

As Lexi put it,

Demetri and I lived in Damascus, Syria in 2009 and 2010. It was an amazing time to be there — it was extremely safe and was just starting to open up more to tourism. There were new restaurants, art galleries and cultural events all within this ancient city — the oldest continually inhabited city on earth — with a deep history and amazing food and traditions…

It has been really difficult to watch this country we loved and lived in fall into such despair. I always say the Syria of today isn't the Syria we knew, but the Syrian people are. At a point, it became impossible to keep watching the news without doing anything.

When we first started fundraising in 2013, I was blown away by the amount of support we received from our family and friends and the impact it had on Syrian families. In order to expand our efforts, we established it as a formal non-profit organization and got 501(c)(3) status from the government so that all donations made to The Syria Fund are fully tax deductible.

In October, I traveled to Jordan on behalf of Elite Daily alongside The Syria Fund to witness the work it's doing firsthand.

We traveled across the country for a week, visiting with refugees in a wide array of settings, from small communities in the countryside to bustling cities to the first and largest refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan, Zaatari Refugee Camp (where 80,000 Syrians reside).

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), there are around 600,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, but only around 20 percent live in refugee camps.

When Syrians choose not to live in camps, it means they have to fend for themselves. This is difficult for a number of reasons, not only because they've fled from their homes due to war, but also because they can't get work permits in Jordan.

This is why The Syria Fund focuses primarily on helping refugees in urban settings, as they are the most at-risk.

For seven days, I watched in awe as Lexi and Demetri tirelessly worked alongside local partners to organize assistance for Syrians across Jordan.

I watched them collect supplies for Syrians in the bustling markets of Amman, Jordan — everything from winter coats and shoes to kitchen supplies.

I watched them visit a community center for refugees they're helping to build in Azraq, Jordan, where thousands of Syrians live.

I watched them communicate with students across the country, affectionately interacting with them and conversing effortlessly in Arabic.

I watched them help build a classroom for a small community of refugees living in tents in the desert.

And I watched them bring winter coats and school supplies to children in that same community.

It was beautiful and, in some ways, overwhelming to see the smiles on the faces of these children as Lexi and Demetri helped them put on their new coats, which will keep them warm during the harsh Jordanian winter. We take a lot for granted in the US.

At a time when Islamophobia and xenophobia are running rampant, and much of the world views refugees with suspicion, the importance of the work Lexi and Demetri are doing cannot be overstated.

They've taken the time out of their own busy schedules to selflessly assist people whose lives have been ripped apart by war.

While presidential candidates and other politicians in the US contend we shouldn't help refugees, Lexi and Demetri are stepping out of their day-to-day jobs and taking vacation time to travel to the Middle East and offer a helping hand.

The world needs more people like them, and it needs more organizations like The Syria Fund.

Contrary to what many in the West seemingly believe, the Middle East is not an inherently dangerous place, and Islam is not a religion to be feared. Lexi and Demetri, who lived in the Middle East for years, would be the first to tell you that. And part of the reason they established The Syria Fund was to dispel negative perceptions of the region and its peoples. As Demetri explained,

The first thing I think of when I think of my time in Syria is how friendly and generous the people are…

When we were living in Damascus, friends in America would often ask how we were perceived as Americans living in Syria. If anything, people were even friendlier when they found out where we were from, especially when they realized we could speak Arabic… We were invited for tea or coffee or dinner all the time and people were eager to hear about our country and what we thought about their country…

For me, The Syria Fund is almost as much about changing perceptions as it is about helping those in need. The almost year and a half I spent living in Syria was one of the best times in my life. Since the war has begun, colleagues and acquaintances in the US tend to ask me about the violence, about the Islamic State or about whether any solution can be reached. But each time I have those conversations, I think about what a wonderful place it was to live, and the amazing people I met there.

The Syria we knew was a wonderful place and it will be a wonderful place again. In the meantime, I feel like those of us who spent time there and came to love the people and the culture have an obligation to do whatever we can to help in this time of need.

If more people shared the attitude of Lexi and Demetri, the world would be a decidedly more tolerant, compassionate and productive place.

In order for The Syria Fund to continue to make an impact, it needs funding. If you're interested in learning more, visit TheSyriaFund.org.

And watch the video below for a closer look at what The Syria Fund focused on while in Jordan.

Editor's note: Keep an eye out for more coverage of Elite Daily's visit to Jordan in the near future. 

Citations: 2015 UNHCR country operations profile Jordan (UNHCR), Zaatari (UNHCR)

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John Haltiwanger

Editor

John Haltiwanger is the Senior Politics Writer at Elite Daily. He was born and raised in DC. John earned an MSc in International Relations from the Univ. Of Glasgow and a BA in History from St. Mary's College of MD. He loves life, and burritos.
John Haltiwanger is the Senior Politics Writer at Elite Daily. He was born and raised in DC. John earned an MSc in International Relations from the Univ. Of Glasgow and a BA in History from St. Mary's College of MD. He loves life, and burritos.

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