Zeina Al-Khalaf, an ambitious young girl from the USA, embarked on a mission to bring change to kids halfway across the globe by starting her own non-profit charity organisation while she was still just in high school. The lives of Ahmed Jabbar, an Iraqi child who had lost his legs, had minimal eyesight and 70 percent of his body burned, and Dalal Nassir, a 5 year old girl also with severe wounds, brought awareness to Zeina of the atrocities that young innocent children suffer as victims of war. Zeina was encouraged to do something about it.
Her charity called ‘Raising Smiles-The Iraqi Childrens’ Transportation Fund’, which she began in 2005, aims to raise money to help bring wounded Iraqi children to the United States to receive medical treatment such as prosthetics, rehabilitation and surgery. Raising Smiles has been partnering up with several non-profit organisations who process the visas for the children in order to bring them to the US. Once all the transportation arrangements have been made, medical care is provided free of charge by Shriners Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. The children are also given a sum of money to cover basic living expenses upon their return back home.
Amazed by this young woman’s story, I was intrigued to know more and decided to interview Zeina.
(Rafeeah Laher): Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what motivated you to start Raising Smiles.
(Zeina Al-Khalaf): I started Raising Smiles because in the summer of my sophomore year I went to a fundraiser at George Mason University that had worked with a non-profit to bring two Iraqi children to the US who had lost their limbs during the war. The minute I laid eyes on the kids, I knew that that was something I wanted to do; I wanted to help these kids as much as I could. So the next year when I entered high school, I brought up the idea to my marketing teacher, Mr Walker, and he was the one who helped me begin Raising Smiles.
(RL): How did you spread awareness about your charity and manage to raise enough funds?
(ZAK): Most of the awareness came within our school, but very quickly it got picked up in the media and through the media we had a lot more supporters for Raising Smiles. It was something truly beautiful to see: a community got together to help children who they had never met.
(RL): What were some of the major challenges that you encountered along your way?
(ZAK): I had some challenges from some of my classmates themselves. It was right in the middle of the war when things were getting really sensitive and some students had siblings that were serving in the war. And even though I don’t blame them for their emotions towards Iraq, we were simply helping children. Some people called me a terrorist and some just tried to give me a hard time about what I was doing, but in the end my teacher and all the other students who were helping me, got me through it all without it hurting me too much.
(RL): What has been the biggest highlight for Raising Smiles?
(ZAK): The biggest highlight was definitely bringing the children here from overseas. It was just the most beautiful thing you could ever see, these kids that were so loved by everyone around them. There was a special light in their eyes, a light of hope, and it’s something I don’t think anyone will ever forget. Also, what makes our organisation unique is the opportunity for us to actually meet and bond with the kids.
(RL): What’s the best thing you’ve gained from the whole experience?
(ZAK): I learned a lot from Raising Smiles, not only organisation-wise but also in life. I learned how to be more patient, understanding and kind. I learned that sometimes things don’t always seem fair in life and that there are a lot of things we take for granted. These kids taught me so many lessons that I can never forget and it has shaped who I am today as a woman and as a wife.
(RL): How have these kids impacted your life?
(ZAK): The fact that the children will return home with a part of their life back is so encouraging. I love working in fields that help people and specifically children. They are the future generations of the world, they are our hope and our future and regardless of that there’s nothing more fulfilling than bringing a smile to a child with a broken heart. There are many children around the world that need help and support and I hope that I can help change a child’s life, even if it’s just a little bit.
(RL): Since the founding of the organisation, there have been multiple successful fundraising events that generated enough money to help bring five Iraqi children to the United States to receive prosthetics. The children were not only able to heal from the physical wounds they had, but also somewhat the mental ones as well. Zeina has received an ABC 7 News Working Women Award in 2009 and is also a member of Generation Change, an organisation dedicated to the involvement of younger generations in national and global affairs.
Rafeeah Laher is a South African based freelance writer who has philanthropic aspirations. You can follow her on twitter: @Rafeeah_L, she’d love to hear from you!