What’s it like to be in an actual war? What is it like to be a refugee? “Awful.”

That was what Karyn Thomas, an Australian native who lives in Turkey working with displaced Syrian people, had to say to students at St. Ignatius Catholic School.  Ms. Thomas was visiting the school to share her experience escaping war-torn Syria, and the work her charity, Small Projects Istanbul, does to help refugees.

Small Projects Istanbul provides language training, community projects and scholarships to assist Syrian refugees displaced by their country’s conflict to remain self-sustainable in the city.

The presentation was brought to life with a video portraying the activities and projects taking place in the organization’s Olive Tree Community Center and Craft Collective, whose origins lie in a small cellar space in Istanbul, which schools around Cayman had helped to establish with donations.

Ms. Thomas was invited to the island by John Gray High School teacher Edward Todd, who has volunteered with Small Projects Istanbul. Students at the school raised over $4,000 for the organization.

On her visit, Ms. Thomas also gave presentations at Clifton Hunter High School, John Gray High School, Cayman International School and Rotary, among others. She spoke about the Syrian crisis, which has resulted in the flight of millions of people into neighboring countries and beyond, highlighted the support from Cayman.

Mr. Todd volunteered in Istanbul in 2014, linking up with Small Projects Istanbul.

“It’s difficult to describe,” he said, “the fact that here in the Cayman Islands, the students gave the funds to Small Projects Istanbul to see and do all the wonderful things you will see on the video. Everything on that video started from a small seed. St. Ignatius, John Gray, everybody provided the support and the funds to help that seed grow, so you have actually made a difference to about 300 families at the moment and you are still doing that.”

Students read stories of what it means to be a refugee in Istanbul.

Ms. Thomas, the mastermind and director behind Small Projects Istanbul, was inspired by her experiences at Yarmouk Camp, an area of Damascus populated by Palestinian refugees in 2011 and 2012.

Married to a Syrian, Ms. Thomas lived in Syria for four years – two years before the war and two years during the war that continues today.

Youth in Syria missing out on schooling due to the conflict led Ms. Thomas to sponsor a 17-year-old Palestinian girl to finish her secondary education. The grassroots organization took off from there, with many individuals getting involved.

While in Syria, she started teaching a group of five refugee children in a small bedroom. Within a couple of weeks, she had 55 children attending, teaching them art, English and storytelling.

“It was to just bring them out of the house to something normal,” she said.

But on Dec. 16, 2012, a large bomb was dropped in the vicinity and they no longer felt safe. Within two hours, she said, 60,000 people left, with just the things they could carry, to make their lives elsewhere, and that is how she ended up in Istanbul.

“The war, it’s an awful place to be,” continued Ms. Thomas.

“It’s not like a tsunami where a few years later you heal, people start to re-marry and move forward – with a war it is a cycle – it’s been six years and it hasn’t gotten any better; it’s gotten worse,” she said.

Small Projects Istanbul Karyn Thomas and Azize Celiktas with students at St. Ignatius Catholic Church.

She told the students there were many moments of joy in the organization they had contributed to. She said the organization supports women’s work, supplies food vouchers and has supported 300 children, getting them back to school and out of factory work.

“Our volunteer work is never ending. Anyone that gives us an idea, we run with it if it works,” said Ms. Thomas. “It is working and there is much laughter and a bright sense of belonging.”

Within several months of its inception, Small Projects Istanbul grew to over 80 volunteers, and eventually the old cellar was built into a functional day care centre and teaching facility. Offerings include a women’s craft collective and an array of language classes, as well as other activities such as mucic, art and computer programming.

In her presentation, Ms. Thomas thanked the children for their donations, and encouraged them to follow Small Projects Istanbul online.

“Drop Earrings not Bombs,” for instance, is a jewelry-making project that raises funds for the organization through sales of hand-woven earrings.

“We are peace activists,” she said. “In that little underground cellar which you helped to create, we are making earrings and rings, and looking after children and helping women and children sustain their lives, as it’s very difficult [for them] to work in Turkey.”

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