A child’s memento is a small testament to why Haya Kaliounji’s bishop calls her “the Resurrection girl.”
A little boy in Syria who lost both legs from the horrific battle in Aleppo sent her a drawing he made as a thank you. He gained a new pair of prosthetic limbs, and was able to go back to school thanks to Kaliounji’s nonprofit organization, Rise Again.
“He started running everywhere, and they called him ‘iron man,’ ” Kaliounji told Angelus News with a slight chuckle.
Underneath Kaliounji’s dark blond hair, intense eyes and kind smile is a 20-year-old college student, an active Catholic and a physiological science major in her third year at UCLA. She also escaped the civil war that engulfed Syria and her beloved Aleppo, before deciding as a Girl Scout to launch Rise Again.
The organization works with the Melkite Catholic Church — an Eastern Catholic Church in communion with the pope — to help Syrians, regardless of religion or denomination, recover their lives with new prosthetic limbs.
Syria’s brutal conflict has lasted seven years, with nearly half a million people killed, and 1.5 million permanently injured, including 86,000 people who have lost their limbs.
More than half of Syria’s people have lost their homes; Kaliounji is an asylum seeker living in Pasadena since 2013. She is just one face among the 5.6 million Syrians estimated by the United Nations to have sought refuge outside the country. Another 6.1 million Syrians are displaced within their own country.
Kaliounji’s family left Aleppo in 2012, as the horrific five-year battle for the city between government and opposition forces was heating up.
Her family lost its large poultry farm, and only salvaged its printing business by relocating it to a Melkite church in a government-controlled area of Aleppo. After staying in Lebanon for half a year, the family was admitted to the United States.
Even as her family built a new life in California, Kaliounji did not forget Aleppo, or its people. An avid Girl Scout in Syria, she joined a troop based out of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Pasadena.
When it came time to choose a project for the Gold Award, the highest honor in the Girl Scouts, she learned that 40,000 maimed Syrians have no way to pay for prosthetic limbs.
But she didn’t need anyone to explain to her that the loss of a limb in Syria does not affect just one individual; it threatens the survival of an entire family. So Kaliounji decided in December 2014 she could make a difference by raising funds to purchase the prosthetic devices and change one life at a time, starting in Aleppo.
“Her heart just went out to the people that were in Syria,” Patty Diehl, Kaliounji’s troop leader at the time, told Angelus News. Kaliounji, who speaks fluent English, French and Arabic, earned her Gold Award in June 2015 and inspired the other girls in the troop, including Diehl’s own daughters. “She is the most remarkable young woman.”
Rise Again continued to grow thanks to Kaliounji’s partnership with St. Anne Melkite Cathedral and the Melkite Eparchy of Newton. So far, they have raised the funds to give 21 Syrian men, women and children prosthetic limbs and hope for the future.
One young man who received a prosthetic limb, Kaliounji said, was able to apply for a job and is now working to support his family.
Another woman lost both legs above the knees. The prosthetic legs were expensive, but she was a mother with six children to support.
“We thought that helping her would help an entire family,” she said. “And it was worth it.”
Kaliounji gave presentations at churches, and found creative ways to raise money and invite people to support her work. She painted birdhouses, picture frames and Easter eggs to sell after Mass. She organized a recycling drive, raised awareness on social media and set up a GoFundMe account.
“I’ve tried almost everything,” she said.
In 2016, Kaliounji partnered with the Melkite eparchy — which was already sending humanitarian relief to Syria through the Melkite Patriarchate’s network — to set up a special account for Rise Again.
“It’s a very beautiful image of the resurrection,” Bishop Nicholas Samra of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, told Angelus News. “They’re getting up again, using their arms, using their legs.”
Father Fouad Sayegh, the pastor of St. Anne’s Cathedral, told Angelus News that the cathedral has a committee that works directly with a corresponding Melkite church committee in Aleppo. They go through the applications for prosthetic limbs, so that the money raised by Rise Again can be wired to pay for them.
Naim Maraashly, an orthopedic technician in Aleppo who studied in Switzerland, produces the prosthetic limbs and only charges what the materials cost, explained Father Sayegh.
The technician meets with the recipients, takes their measurements, crafts the devices and teaches them how to use the prosthetic. Rise Again then transfers the funds required to cover the cost of each prosthetic limb.
In the U.S. and Europe, Father Sayegh said, prostheses can cost thousands of dollars, but in Syria, the costs are much less. The devices range from $300 to $800, and most cost $400 to $500 on average.
“They were hopeless before. They don’t have money,” he said, noting that the beneficiaries are poor or are now numbered among the poor thanks to the war. But with the new limbs, “they were very satisfied.”
Maraashly told Angelus News that Rise Again has also helped him persevere.
“The little money that Haya gathers together little by little,” he said, “gives me the courage to keep drawing these smiles on faces tired of seven years of war.”
Refugees give back
A great many refugees from Syria, like Kaliounji, are trying to help Syrians suffering the effects of war, both on their own and working with the Catholic Church in the U.S. and overseas.
“Each one is trying to raise money to help those who are still there,” Bishop Samra said.
Megan Gilbert, a Catholic Relief Services communications officer for the Middle East, told Angelus News that after seven years of war, serving the Syrian refugee population has gone from providing the basic necessities to now “helping them build lives.”
Catholic Relief Services, which works with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, has specific programming for Syrian refugee children with physical disabilities in Lebanon that has made “a huge difference for them.”
The consequences of helping a child with a physical disability, Gilbert explained, create “ripple effects” across a family’s life. Helping a child gain mobility, she said, frees families to address the other challenges.
“Anything we can do to help them feel like it’s going to be OK, to help them bring any sense of normalcy, any kind of joy back to them, is critical,” she said.
Despite the enormity of the global refugee crisis, fewer refugees and asylum-seekers like Kaliounji will make it to the U.S. this year.
Ashley Feasley, director of policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, told Angelus News the U.S. Church’s ministry to refugees had been severely curtailed. In September 2017, the Trump administration slashed the number of annual refugee admissions from 110,000 to 45,000.
But halfway through fiscal year 2018, fewer than 10,000 refugees have been admitted to the United States. Feasley said that even with an uptick of admissions toward the end, “we’re not going to make half of that goal in a time of exceptional global need.”
According to the U.N. refugee agency, nearly 66 million people worldwide (an unprecedented number in human history) have been forced to leave their homes. Approximately 22.5 million are refugees, half of them under 18 years old.
Beginning on the Easter Vigil and throughout the Easter season, the Melkite Church sings the Paschal Troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, and by his death, he has trampled upon Death, and given life to those in the tombs.”
Until Christ comes again and raises men and women from the dead, Bishop Samra sees Kaliounji’s work through Rise Again as a form of giving life to those caught in Syria’s tragic epoch of violence, who without arms and legs felt cast into the “tombs” and unable to rise again.
“I call her ‘the Resurrection girl,’ ” he said. “She’s bringing life back to people who have lost a limb.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff writer for EWTN’s National Catholic Register, who has covered the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis from Lebanon and Jordan. He is a frequent contributor to Angelus News.