By Fleming Smith
During summer vacation, it’s often easy, and tempting, to avoid the news of national and international problems that many would rather just take a break from for a while. For one Sewanee student, however, summer presents an opportunity to face those problems head on: Abby Straessle (C’20) is spending her vacation helping the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) in Arkansas spread hope to Syrians struggling during their civil war.
Straessle manages the campaign for the Letters of Hope project, which collects letters from the United States and around the world in order to send them to internally displaced people in Syria.
“Syria’s dictator [Bashar al-Assad] has used hopelessness as a weapon, so Letters of Hope is aimed at countering this hopelessness and letting Syrians know that people outside of Syria care about them,” Straessle explained. “It has received an incredible response from the world and the Syrians who have received them. They let us know daily that the emotional support is just as important as the aid we provide.”
The Letters of Hope project is part of SETF through “The Wisdom House Project,” a group founded by Arkansans that also sponsors a kindergarten and a women’s center in Syria. “Since I am majoring in politics and women’s and gender studies, this internship is right down my alley,” Straessle said.
She found the internship through a Sewanee connection, alumnus Jerry Adams (C’65), who, like Straessle, hails from Arkansas.
“After speaking with him about how I would like to have a career in non-profit work, he told me about SETF and how he is a board member. Thanks to him, I found this amazing internship that I love,” Straessle said.
As part of her internship, she also maintains SETF’s social media accounts and website. Straessle keeps the pages up to date with current Syrian news as well as updates from the ground and their campaign.
Although their focus is global, Straessle and SETF also hope to engage the people right in their backyard. The group has planned an event for the end of July to raise funds and awareness for their causes.
“It will be held in a local area and we’ve invited our local vendors, food trucks, a local band, along with our entire community. Our aim for the event is to raise awareness for Syria but also raise $2,000 to fund ESL (English as a second language) books for our Wisdom House kindergarten in Syria, where almost every student has lost one or both parents,” she explained.
For Straessle, her internship has impressed on her the power of community, and she believes Sewanee students have more power than they realize to create change in their communities and around the world.
“Although I do believe the Sewanee bubble can prevent students from getting involved in international issues, I think fixing this would be simple. We need to pursue activation in our own community, constantly encouraging thought that is global and action that is local and offering opportunities and incentives for our students to get, and stay, involved,” Straessle said.
She continued, “I think that once Sewanee students understand the impact that we can make together in Syria, even though it seems worlds away, then we will take action as a community.”