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South Burlington Teens Are Working To Keep Syrian Refugees Warm This Winter

Annie Russell
Kiran Waqar, left, and Lena Ginawi are sending blankets overseas this winter, in an effort to help refugees still within Syrian borders.

The resettling of Syrian refugees in the U.S. has become a national debate: While many governors have tried to block Syrians from entering their states, Gov. Peter Shumlin has pledged to continue to accept Syrian refugees.

Two students at South Burlington high school are volunteering their time to help refugees in North Syria get through the winter.

Lena Ginawi and Kiran Waqar are sending blankets overseas this winter, in an effort to help refugees still within Syrian borders.

Ginawi says the students wanted to give back, and also combat some of the fear toward Muslims she's seen in national news headlines.

“[We’re] showing that Muslims aren't actually part of this ISIS group, and that we are actually trying to help,” said Ginawi.

Ginawi and Waqar are both first-generation immigrants to the U.S., whose parents settled in Vermont from Egypt and Pakistan.

The students are working with an organization called NuDay Syria, a New-Hampshire-based group that focusing on humanitarian aid within Syria and in bordering areas.

They say, in addition to reaching out to individuals for fleece blanket donations, they have also contacted several Vermont companies for donations.

"[We're] showing that Muslims aren't actually part of this ISIS group, and that we are actually trying to help." — Lena Ginawi

Their requests have garnered mostly positive responses, with one exception.

“We emailed this one company for blanket donations, a local Vermont company,” Waqar explained, “And the email we got back said, 'Syrians should stay in Syria. If you want to do a meaningful project, help the veterans.' And then they said, 'Merry Christmas.’”

“We've seen that kind of fear, and we know that people do feel a certain way,” Wagar added.

Stacy Manosh, an owner of Vermont-based clothing company Johnson Woolen Mills, confirms sending the email.

Good morning, We feel the Syrians should stay in Syria. It would be nice to see Americans supporting Americans. We have thousands of Veterans that have fought and died to defend this country. Some are homeless and living on the street. If you want to do a meaningful project, please consider taking care of the people in this country. Merry Christmas, Stacy

But the students say that email was an anomaly. After the recent terror attacks in Paris, Ginawi says she expected an anti-Muslim backlash from her peers. But the backlash never came.

"I actually received more friends who came up to me and said, 'Hey, I know this isn't part of your religion. We're here for you and we understand that you would never do such a thing.’” says Ginawi. “So I actually feel like Vermont is a great place.”

“I'm really proud of Vermont," Waqar added.

And she says she hopes Americans, many of whom descend from immigrants, can put themselves in the shoes of Syrian refugees.

"I want people to understand that just because of what they're seeing from ISIL, [it] is a group of people that I don't identify with, I don't know anyone who identifies with [them],” Waqar says. “If that was happening here, we'd want people to reach out to us."

And both students say that, knowing Vermont is committed to accepting Syrian refugees here, makes them proud to be Vermonters.

Clarification: This post has been updated to reflect Stacy Manosh's job title. She is an owner, not an employee of Johnson Woolen Mills. Dec. 30, 2015, 3:00 p.m. 

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
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