Rise Again started as a Girl Scout project. Now it's a non-profit affiliated with a Los Angeles church.
Like thousands of others, Haya Kaliounji’s family was on the run because of the war in Syria. Her family, Armenian Catholics who lived in Aleppo, felt that it was not safe for Christians to stay. After a brief sojourn in Lebanon, they settled in Los Angeles, California, where they now have temporary protective status.
Kaliounji, who is beginning studies at UCLA after two years at a community college, may be safe in LA, but rather than forgetting about those she left behind, she has become an advocate for young Syrians who are vulnerable because of the loss of a limb or limbs.
“I’ve always been a Girl Scout, and when I came here I wanted to keep doing that,” Kaliounji said in an interview. “When I joined the troop here, the leader told me about the Gold Award.
The Gold Award, open only to girls in high school, is the highest achievement in Girl Scouts. It challenges participants to solve a community problem in the long term.
“I thought that other girls here pick something for their community, which is around here where I live, but I thought I would give something back to the Syrian community,” she said.”I thought to myself that if it’s successful I’ll turn it into a nonprofit, and once I started seeing results I started working on it.”
The project, which she called Rise Again, was to raise money and provide prosthetic devices for children who have lost limbs during the war in Syria. Even before winning the Gold Award in 2015, she started working on the 501 (c) 3 paperwork.
It helped that her family knew an orthopedic technician who was already providing prosthetic devices for amputees in Syria, Naim Maraashly. Kaliounji knew a few people who were injured in the war, but no amputees. Maraashly told Aleteia’s French edition in May that he’s fitted almost 200 patients with prostheses, including many infants, young people and women.
Kaliounji found herself going to various churches in the LA area to speak, sell handicrafts, and appeal for funds. One of them is St. Anne Melkite Greek Catholic Cathedral in North Hollywood, which has many Arabic-speaking immigrants as parishioners. It turned out that the pastor, Father Fouad M. Sayegh, a Syrian native, knew many of the same people the Kaliounji family knew.
“Father Fouad thought it would be a great opportunity to not only help those who suffer from the Syrian civil war but that it would bring an awareness of the suffering of the people in Syria,” said Father Musil Shihadeh, a priest at the church. “We’re the largest Byzantine Catholic Church in Los Angeles, so we have a larger community outreach to bring that awareness.”
“We agreed that I make the non-profit a permanent part of the church,” Kaliounji said. That was in 2016. The funds go through the church to the project in Syria. So far, Rise Again has raised over $13,000 and helped 12 amputees.
According to the project’s GoFundMe page, that’s a drop in the bucket: there are over 40,000 amputees in Syria who can’t afford a prosthetic limb. One device can cost between $300 and $800.
But it’s a start, and Kaliounji plans to keep going with the fundraising, even as she hits the books at UCLA.
“I can’t go back to Syria now,” she said, “but if someday I go back, I plan on seeing some of the people we helped.”