When jets fly over North Texas, few may give it a second thought, but for Rania Kisar of Dallas, the sound of thrust cutting through the air is a reminder of the risks she faces every time she crosses the border into Syria.
“I'm actually always petrified,” she told me, “because you never know when the airplane is going to shell or where it's going to shell."
The bombs falling from fighter jets have become routine, but as the relentless civil war unfolds around her, Kisar, a Syrian-American, travels from village to village in Syria to teach management and leadership skills to locals.
Years before the civil war started, she worked in the admissions department at the Art Institute of Dallas and, for a time, at the University of Phoenix. She never imagined that, one day, she would use those same skills to help “empower” the youth in a war-torn country.
“Empowerment is not about giving them money. Empowerment is about getting [the youth] to think independently," Kisar says.
That idea serves as the mission statement for the non-profit organization she helped create called Syrian Humanitarian Institute for National Empowerment or SHINE. It has become a mission that has taken her into the heart of a violent conflict. Thousands have died in Syria and large parts of cities and towns are in ruins.
“I can smoke in my office.”
I met Kisar in neighboring Istanbul, Turkey, where she works out of a small, second-floor office. Dim florescent lights shine down from above. Canvass-style pictures of past humanitarian projects hang from light, sky-blue walls, all around.
Jokingly, she told me she likes it in Turkey because, “I can smoke in my office,” she says, which has become a rare privilege in North Texas. She asks if I mind if she has a smoke. Of course, wanting to be a gracious guest, I say it is fine. As she lights up the small cigarette, I wonder to myself how much it may help calm her nerves. Alas, she’s spent the better part of the last 5 years, navigating through a war-zone. And I now get a sense that keeping SHINE running is a demanding job that requires a lot of negotiating with local governments, begging for donations, and not to mention — facing the real threat of being seriously hurt or worse.
None of that is stopping Kisar.
"If something happens to me, at least I will know that I have done everything that I can to help people," she told me.
"Despite all of the atrocities and bad conditions, people insist to live. People insist to learn. People insist to make a respectful career."
She is not alone in her quest. Kisar works closely with a team of scholars in Syria who I talked to via Skype from Kisar’s office.
“We are creating our mission in life," says Ahmed Momar, the director of the SHINE Institute in Idlib Province, Syria.
Momar is one of the instructors who teach young adults networking and web development skills at the institute. He told me it is a miracle the school has grown so much because resources are scarce in a country gripped by war. Also, there’s always the threat of fire fights or shelling.
“We have many risks,” Momar says. “You are risking your life when you are going to school or to the institute, to the university."
"Can you imagine what it means that you are risking your life while you are going to the institute? Or going to school?" he asked. I think to myself: No I cannot.
He continues, "Despite all of the atrocities and bad conditions, people insist to live. People insist to learn. People insist to make a respectful career."
That sentiment exemplifies the work they are doing at the SHINE Institute.
The hope is that by teaching young people practical skills in IT, students will be able to enter the local market at a critical time. Think of it as an ‘accelerated learning’ program.
“We are not just giving them hope we are giving them the tools," Momar told me.
Hope is all that many people have at this point. The war shows no sign of ending anytime soon, but the work continues for Kisar, Momar, and the rest of the team at SHINE.
"Me and the other guys, we all have the chance to leave Syria,” Momar said, “and go outside and find a job and continue our lives and continue high study in university, but we decided to stay here."
Momar says they’re building their country from zero. According to the United Nations Human Rights council (UNHCR), the fighting has forced 6 million Syrians from their homes inside the country, while another 5 million refugees have gone to other countries. The majority of refugees have gone to neighboring Turkey, where many signs have been translated from Turkish into Arabic, so Syrians have a smoother transition, Kisar told me. While it has put a strain on the infrastructure, Turkey seems to have rolled out the welcome mat for refugees.
However, in North Texas, many, including top government officials, have raised concerns about allowing Syrian refugees to resettle in the state. Critics warn that terrorists may use the refugee process to infiltrate the country and carry out attacks. Momar and Kisar hope to allay those concerns.
“The people of Texas may be afraid,” Momar said, “but go and listen to [the refugees]. Listen to the stories. Ask them why [they left their home]?"
Speaking of home: Kisar told me she misses north Texas and she hopes to return soon, but not until the fighting in Syria stops.
"I want to go home. I want to go back to Dallas and get a regular job and maybe help people go back to school again," Kisar says.
Hopefully, one day Kisar’s work in Syria will be done and she will be able to come home to get that regular job; she likely won’t be able to smoke in that office, but at least when the planes fly overhead she won’t have to worry.