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Anchorage campaign to help refugees shares message of hope

  • Author:
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published November 25, 2015

The refugee children from Syria aren't asking all that much, the speaker told the Anchorage audience.

"They ran away from violence and don't want to see any more of it," he said. "They ran away from their homes and when some of them come here to make a new home -- we should welcome them."

Then he delivered a greeting in Arabic to Syrian refugees and translated it into English for the crowd of nearly 500 at the Dena'ina Center: "You are welcome here."

Some will scoff at this childlike view of American values, which is so out of sync with the bellicose experts.

But during this season of fearmongering, there is something refreshing about the idealism and sentiment, which is childlike for good reason.

The speaker, who stood on a box to get above the lectern, was a 10-year-old Anchorage boy, William Scannell IV, who thinks that there is a simple way to help refugee children feel a little less abandoned.

Scannell is the founder and chief spokesman of Any Refugee, a project to send positive postcards and personal messages to kids who have been uprooted by war and other disasters. He gave his talk Friday as he was honored at the Alaska Philanthropy Day Awards luncheon as a young humanitarian.

Laurie Wolf, the CEO of the Foraker Group, said his words filled the room with hope, "setting an example with his no-nonsense dedication to a peaceful world."

The postcard plan took shape after his dad, Bill Scannell, had told him about the "Any Soldier" campaign to send messages of friendship to military members overseas. William wondered if a similar effort might be a way to cheer up refugees and he started a year ago with his fellow students at Pacific Northern Academy in Anchorage. The children drew pictures and wrote a line or two of encouraging words.

The first card William made had a drawing of himself waving and wearing his red winter coat with a backdrop of mountains and a sunset. He has created more cards on his own and touched off a movement that spread through the school and far beyond. Getting a message like this, even from someone you don't know, makes a kid feel better, William said.

His parents have had a big role in supporting this endeavor, but there is no mistaking this young man's spirit and leadership. I've interviewed many spokesmen for causes over the years and he is an effective advocate with unusual talents, all the more striking because of his age.

He became interested in the Middle East when he traveled with his dad to the West Bank as a first-grader. "I kind of fell in love and then I wanted to learn Arabic," he said in an Anchorage TV interview last spring. He's been studying the language ever since and has regular language sessions via Skype with a refugee attorney in Lebanon. On Monday, he told his tutor about American traditions for Thanksgiving.

William is not the only one who believes that the postcards can help traumatized children. An international Catholic relief organization, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, recently agreed to handle distribution of the completed cards.

William, a sixth-grader, has talked to students as far away as Germany via Skype to show them how to participate. He said the smaller children tend to use a lot of flowers and hearts in their drawings, while others go in for sunny skies and scenery or illustrations of themselves.

William said he has read only a little of the international news about refugees. "It's kind of nice that Germany is taking in so many refugees," he said. Refugees really want to try to make a new life for themselves and be accepted, William said.

Early this year he traveled to Lebanon with his dad and delivered a big batch of postcards at a school for refugees.

"It was an entirely new group of kids and I didn't know what they'd think of me. But they were really accepting and I got to play games with them in the schoolyard and stuff," he said.

One of the children, a 14-year-old girl from Iraq, drew two pictures, one showing her family being evicted from their home and the other showing them running away and ducking gunfire, he said. The children at the school were fun to be with, he said, although many had lost close relatives and had been out of school for a long time.

"They seemed pretty happy, but they also had this kind of dark sad aura around them," he said.

William said kids need support from adults and can't change the world on their own. "Kids are people too and we need adults to look after us," he told the Anchorage audience. "You're bigger than us."

He returned from the trip to Lebanon with cards from the refugees last spring, which became the subject of a school exhibit. One response, decorated with a smiley face, a red heart and balloons, was from Amar, 14. "I come from Damascus, Syria. I like playing basketball. What is (your) favorite sport?"

The Jesuit Refugee Service, which has several schools for refugees in Lebanon, said it encourages children in the U.S. to write to "their counterparts across the globe and JRS will facilitate sending the postcards to the children it serves." For more information, go to www.anyrefugee.org.

"We are thrilled to partner with Any Refugee and work with William to raise awareness about the plight of refugees. Part of the mission of JRS is to accompany refugees and the postcards are a tremendous way to share the message that these refugees are not forgotten," Armando Borja, regional director of JRS North America, said in a statement last month.

William said he thinks of the cards as messages to unseen friends. "It might teach them that they're not alone," he said.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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