A chance opportunity to volunteer at a dance camp organized at her university proved to be a turning point for Pooja Pradeep. This was Pooja’s first ever interaction with children. She was pursuing a bachelors’ degree in mechanical engineering with a specialization in energy engineering from VIT University in Vellore then.
She recalls, “There was a nine-year-old girl who had a panic attack while dancing. I came to know that she had been sexually assaulted and dancing in front of the boys in the group acted as a trigger. Subsequently, I tried to make the children acquainted with gender dynamics and started discussions about sexual abuse. That little girl was adjudged the best dancer at the end of the camp. That is when I realized that teaching children was my clarion.”
This experience was the among the many rungs that led to the germination of Letters of Love – an initiative started under the aegis of UNHCR (Gaziantep, Turkey). It aims to bring love, hope and smiles in the lives of refugee children in war-torn countries through handwritten letters.
Letters of Love has delivered handwritten letters to more than 48,000 Syrian, Iraqi, Yazidi, Afghan, Kurdish, Sudanese, Rohingya and Palestinian refugee children. It has also engaged ten thousands of youth around the world in building a global youth movement to empower displaced communities.
The desire to bring about a change
The heartbreaking photograph of the three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body drove Pooja to do her bit in one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
She narrates, “The Syrian refugee crisis was at its peak in August 2015. The pictures of the displaced families and children were all over social media. Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York fame, was doing a Refugee Series with photos and excerpts depicting the unimaginable tribulations they faced, especially the children. The pictures left a deep impact on me and I they haunted me for days. I desperately wanted to do something.”
Pooja, now 27, had just finished her B.Ed from St. Xavier’s Institute of Education in Mumbai. She came up with an idea to click a selfie with flowers, hoping the picture - along with a handwritten note- would help the children in Syria feel better in some way. “I shared it with my friends and family members; but they rejected it saying that a photograph would be of little value to Syrian children,” she recounts.
However, her best friend Rushil Nori, a member of the Indian delegation of Seeds of Peace camp (an international non-profit that works towards peace building and conflict resolution), hailed the idea. He connected her with his counselor at the camp, Christopher Littlefield. “Chris got me in touch with UNHCR Turkey who were floored by the idea, and agreed to be the implementation partners in the distribution of these letters,” she says.
The next step was to launch a Facebook page. “I reached out to people across the globe and asked them if they wanted to do something for the refugee children. The response was overwhelming; people from across the globe jumped on board to write handwritten letters with stickers, doodles and pictures of themselves.”
The letters were single-handedly translated into Syrian Arabic by Amna Niaz, a Saudi Arabian citizen with Syrian roots. Letters of Love sent 1300 letters to Syrian refugee children in 2016. “The project was very exhausting and time-consuming. I was doing all this without having the buffer of a secure job,” she says.
She says, “In mid-2016, the UNHCR reached out to us again, asking if we would be able to pull off a second round of sending letters. The letters were very well-received by the children and it had become a prized-possession for them. They were also being used for educational purposes. For instance, if a child had received a letter from India, it could be used to make them learn new things about India. The community centres that took care of Iraqi and Yazidi refugee children had approached the UNHCR seeking these handwritten letters. This time we had to draft 13,000 letters.”
In 2017 the Facebook page of Letters of Love was relaunched with a bigger team. ‘Meet, Greet and Scribble’ events were held across India. She says, “We used to go to cafes and restaurants asking people to write letters. By December 2017, we were able to draft & send 13,000 letters to our implementation partners in Jordan and Turkey.”
Pooja recalls, “In 2016, I used to teach Physics and Mathematics to students of standard 9 at Centrepoint School in Nagpur. My interaction with my students made me realize there is a woeful lack of awareness about the refugee crisis. I started discussing the issue with them and they showed tremendous interest, especially when they heard about Letters of Love. They also wanted to do something, and that is when I designed a pilot module to create awareness among students.”
Letters of Love currently runs a student ambassador programme under which students can write letters and run awareness programmes about the plight of refugees and underprivileged children.
Letters of Love has also been associated with the El Sistema community in Athens, Greece that strives to promote the social inclusion of refugee children in Greek and European societies by tapping into the power of music. El Sistema organizes music classes for refugee children at the Skaramagas camp which is home to 3,000 refugees.
From a simple idea of spreading smiles through handwritten letters, Letters of Love is now a youth-led international non-profit organisation based out of the US that offers psychosocial support to refugee children through art, sports, dance, music and other workshops while creating a globally aware, empathetic citizenry of young leaders in classrooms.
Letters of Love is a member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) #WithRefugees Coalition, UN-Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)-Youth, United Network of Young Peacebuilders, Globalgiving and the United Nations Major Group for Children and youth (UNMGCY).
(Edited by Varnika Gupta)