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Letters to Lebanon: Hudson students connect with Syrian refugees

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    Syrian children living in a refugee camp at Ketermaya, Lebanon, receive letters from middle school students in Hudson in November.
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    Syrian children living in a refugee camp at Ketermaya, Lebanon are in contact with pen pals in Hudson. Here is a letter from a middle school student includes drawings of some national landmarks written in October. The First Presbyterian Church in Hudson is raising funds to help supply these refugees with critical supplies.
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    Refugee children write letters to pen palls in Hudson.
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    Danette Gorman, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Hudson, is helping to support a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon.
February 13, 2018 11:30 pm

HUDSON — More than 6,600 miles separate Hudson and the nation of Lebanon, but students are bridging the gap to Syrian refugees there through letters.

Second, third, fourth and fifth grade students in Hudson have been pen-paling with Syrian refugees at Camp Ketermaya in Lebanon.

Danette Gorman, a member of Hudson’s First Presbyterian Church, worked with Hudson City School District to start the program in May 2017 after learning about the refugee camp Ketermaya, which is home to mostly Syrian orphans and widows.

The program began with a small group of fourth-graders and has since expanded to other grades.

“There were probably 150 letters we sent just the fifth-grade class alone,” said Bridget Smith, a literacy specialist at Montgomery C. Smith Intermediate School. “They [the students] are really excited to get these letters back and really interested to see the letters are translated back from Arabic to English.”

One letter sent from a Hudson student on Oct. 30 read:

“Dear Pen Pal,

My favorite part of fifth grade is being with my friends and being with a very kind teacher. What do you like to learn about? My favorite thing to eat is rice and beans. What kind of food do you like?”

The letters have lifted the spirits of many of the children and many look forward to receiving them, said Gorman’s husband, Joseph Shohfi.

“These kids in Lebanon are a lot of them are orphans,” he said. “They come from some of the poorest areas hardest-hit from war. Some are 8 or 10-year-old children that have never been to school… They are so anxious to learn anything.”

The letters are also having a big and lasting impact on the students in Hudson.

“I believe, over time, the friendships the children will develop through the letters will mean something to them and be a trans-formative influence to better their lives and how they think about the world, cultures, war, survival and may influence what they choose to do with their lives,” Gorman said via email Tuesday.

Gorman planned to bring another bag of letters home on her return trip from Lebanon.

The Hudson students also made and shipped friendship bracelets that say “HKC” or Hudson-Ketemaya Connection to the kids in Lebanon.

“They [the Hudson students] were really shocked to learn this war in Syria is happening right now,” Smith said. “A lot of them assumed it happened in the past. They were surprised this is still happening. It seems so foreign to them. They wanted to send things to them [the refugees] when they learned many of them didn’t have food or money.

“I just keep reassuring them that they are using the power of the words to give the children on the other side of the world is hope,” Smith added. “When a kid reads this letter, they know someone in the world thinking of them and wants to know more about their situation. It has been really powerful. Through the power of their words, they were able to make a difference. They don’t have a lot to give financially, so this is really powerful for them.”

In addition to the letters, the First Presbyterian Church has been collecting donations for the refugee camp as they work to restore their historic church at 369 Warren St.

“The mission was looking for ways to do outreach for the community to help these refugees,” Shohfi said. “She [Gorman] came up with this program. She wanted to tie the children of Hudson to the children of Ketermaya.”

There is a critical need for diapers, fuel and food, said Gorman, who has been to the region four times.

“Refugees who travel over the mountains to reach our camps are freezing to death as they attempt to flee their homeland,” Gorman said. “There are still many refugees who have nothing.”

Hundreds of the letters will be displayed at a benefit concert Thursday in Beirut in support of all Syrian refugee children.

The concert will feature 250 Syrian refugee children from several camps in Lebanon singing a song about peace, which is the title of the concert.

The concert features internationally renowned clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh who has played with the likes of American-French cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Azmeh is a Syrian refugee who came to the states 16 years ago.

Gorman was in Beirut on Tuesday preparing for the concert at Lebanese American University.

“Learning about the children of Ketermaya helps children have empathy and connects to their heart, I believe, to focus less on their own pain and anxieties or fears and think about the world and what people go through,” Gorman said.

Donations to the refugees can be sent to the church at P.O. Box 763, Hudson, NY, 12534 or online at helpsyriaskids.org.

To reach reporter Amanda Purcell, call 518-828-1616 ext. 2500, or send an email to apurcell@thedailymail.net, or tweet to @amandajpurcell.