“I like to take care of people” says Aida Hennawi, a buildOn student at Central High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “It’s fun and we’re making a difference,” adds her 15 year old brother Abud, a freshman who also attends Central.
It’s typical for buildOn students to speak like this – collectively buildOn students have served over 1.5 million hours of community service across six U.S. regions. But Aida and Abud’s experiences are far from typical. They have been living in Bridgeport just over a year after being displaced from their home country of Syria, two of the millions of refugees seeking safety from the ongoing civil war that has devastated their home country since 2011.
Aida and her brother Abud were born in the island nation of Curacao, to parents of Syrian descent. When Aida was 7 years old her family moved back to Syria, the times Aida looks back on as the happiest days of her life. “I was so happy. I loved my school and my teachers. I loved learning,” Aida reflects.
Aida, Abud and their parents had returned to a place they called home, to a community of friends, teachers and neighbors. This community welcomed them, made them feel safe and came together for holidays and traditions, Aida explains: “It felt so good belonging to a community there. I knew everyone and I was comfortable around them because I’ve known them for so long. They were used to me and I was used to them. It was easy to express myself in school and everywhere else because I knew no one was going to judge me. I was always surrounded by l people I knew and it felt good.”
That all changed in 2011. “One day our town was normal, and the next day I woke up to the sound of machine guns, missiles, explosions, gunshots and more,” says Abud. Being children at the time, Aida and Abud understood little of what was going on around them. “The first days were hard. The supermarkets and malls closed. We got our food from a truck that came by once a month.”
Despite the new circumstances for Aida and Abud, their family persevered. “Our apartment complex was mostly empty. Many families had left. Only one other family was still there. We cooked together, we ate together, we spent most of our time together. The daughter of this family became my best friend,” Aida remembers. These families were coming together to help and support one another despite being desperately in need of support themselves.
While the international news about Syria is filled with images of desperation and strife, education remained a top priority for Aida. She missed her school badly, and knew where she should be in the curriculum for her grade level. She had a school book for the 9th grade level and studied by candle light without electricity. Today, Aida takes pride in her commitment to her education. She takes ACT prep classes and has dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Her back up plan? A pediatrician.
Six months after their move to Bridgeport Aida began to attend buildOn service meetings. “It felt so lonely when I left everyone I knew and changed my entire life,” Aida says. “After a while I met new people, I never thought that I can start my life over and make new friends, but I did – especially in buildOn. I feel like I belong somewhere in buildOn because everyone is extra nice and understanding. They accept you for who you are no matter where you’re from. buildOn makes me feel at home, and I’m thankful that I joined.”
It’s no surprise Aida’s favorite service projects are where she is working with children, like the community Easter Egg Hunt that buildOn students from Central help with every year. “I am getting to know my community, I am beginning to discover what there is here,” she says.
buildOn is a place where Aida can connect to something she has lost – a community. Aida and her family have been running for a long time, searching for a new place to call home and a community to be a part of. “On my last day in Syria, we knew we were leaving. We didn’t have any bags and we had to keep moving. My parents, my brother, me. We had to run.” As a child caught in a conflict zone Aida and Abud had their community taken away from them. Aida has begun to rebuild in her heart those things that were taken from her.
This past October Abud came to his first buildOn service project with his sister. During the service project, Bridgeport students created pinwheels to benefit and raise awareness of the plight of Syrian refugees. Abud’s interest was sparked: “I had a presentation about Syria I had shown my 8th grade class,” he says. “I knew people could learn from it, so I presented it to buildOn.” Relying on their strength from one another Aida and Abud are becoming a part of buildOn in Bridgeport, and getting back what all of us deserve: a feeling of home and a sense of community.