Syrian refugee crisis gets personal for U prof

As with many Minnesotans, Pinar Karaca-Mandic has been watching the Syrian refugee crisis unfold and wondering if there’s anything she can do to help. She has kept her eye on it longer and more steadily than most, however, because the interest is personal.

Karaca-Mandic, a University of Minnesota public health professor, was born in Turkey.

“The beach where the little boy Aylan’s body was found is where I went swimming with my family almost every summer,” she said, recalling the September news photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi.

She turned her research capabilities to finding a way to help.

“I have been observing this crisis since 2011,” she said. “Turkey is now the largest refugee hosting country, with almost 2.5 million registered Syrian refugees; 54 percent are children. While there are refugee camps, they can host at most about 20 percent.

“The rest are truly struggling in major cities or border towns and are in great need,” she continued. “The situation of the children has been saddening me the most. They lost everything, and yet they need everything. They need to continue their education, and we can help.”

The Bridge to Turkiye Fund (BTF), founded in North Carolina in 2003, supports nongovernmental organizations in Turkey, many of which first formed in response to the 1999 earthquake that devastated the country.

“Their main mission is health care and education for children in underserved areas,” Karaca-Mandic said.

Impressed by BTF’s established networks and its focus on children, she approached the group about serving a new population: the Arabic-speaking refugees flooding the country from Syria.

Because she speaks Turkish and English, Karaca-Mandic was able to help find organizations that were already on the ground in Turkey and in a position to make good use of donations from BTF.

She recounted discovering a Syrian refugee couple running an independent bookstore in Istanbul, Pages Bookstore Café. They specialize in stocking Arabic-language books and wanted to help get books into the hands of Syrian refugee children, Karaca-Mandic said. Other key contacts include school principals, who often are running something along the lines of charter schools in order to provide Arabic-language education.

Considering historic tensions between Turkey and Syria, Karaca- Mandic said, “the level of commitment and passion was eye-opening.”

The project has been drawing grants as well as individual donations. The Bridge to Turkiye Fund recently sent funds to provide 3,000 books and 1,000 school bags filled with educational supplies to Syrian children living in Turkey.

BTF uses an online fundraising tool called Crowdrise. Karaca-Mandic created a Minnesota “team” on the Crowdrise page for the BTF project Rising for Syrian Refugee Children. The Spoonbridge with Cherry sculpture from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden marks the team.

Immigrants themselves, she and her husband, who is Montenegran, have settled here because they feel welcome, she said. “It’s our schooling, our attitude toward life, our progressive way of thinking about children,” she said, that led her to launch a Minnesota fundraising challenge.

In the midst of her research, Karaca-Mandic’s daughter asked her a “difficult” question: Would she be doing this if not for her personal connection with Turkey?

“It is true that horrible things are happening all around the world,” Karaca-Mandic said, summarizing her discussion with her child. “Millions of people are struggling in need of housing, food, security and many other basic needs.

“In this case,” she continued, “I felt that I had a comparative advantage. Being from Turkey, speaking Turkish, I was able to reach out to friends, and friends of friends, and to other individuals whom I was referred to as people who would care. I was able to interview and discuss the needs and projects with local NGOs in Turkish. I could do more, and that is why I chose to take an active role.”

Karaca-Mandic said she would be happy to provide further information via email, at pkmandic@umn.edu.

Contributions may be made via the Crowdrise website, www.crowdrise.com/RisingforSyrian RefugeeChildren, or directly to Bridge to Turkiye, www.bridgetoturkiye.org, which is a 501(c)(3) U.S. nonprofit.

Editor’s note: Just after this story was published, it was announced that Global Giving’s Syrian Refugee Relief Fund has awarded $50,000 to BTF.  The funds will be used to provide storybooks; Turkish-Arabic-English dictionaries; school bags and supplies; language, vocational and other general education at community centers; and to sponsor language and art classes for refugee children and their mothers living outside of refugee camps in Turkey. GlobalGiving’s Syrian Refugee Relief Fund is supported by more than 5,000 individual donors in 65 countries.
Anne Holzman is a former resident of St. Anthony Park who visits frequently from Bloomington.

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