The refugee camp in Greece is comprised of five thousand “mobile homes” built on top of concrete, a very clean and tidy place, but absent of much color. As a bell is rung to mark the beginning of music class, the eyes of children sparkle as they run from their individual mobile homes into a one-room schoolhouse with their violins in hand. Through funding from a nonprofit foundation called the Blossom Hill Foundation (BHF), these 50 children carrying their musical instruments to an orchestra class inside of a refugee camp are able to learn how to play music and fulfill their passion. For Shiva Sarram, Founder and Executive Director of the Blossom Hill Foundation, this is why she does what she does, in a nutshell. It motivates her to get up every day.
“When you’re doing the work every day, it is really hard work to see how much these families have endured,” Sarram said. She has been engaged in philanthropic efforts for over 20 years and operates BHF out of New Canaan, Connecticut. Her foundation funds programs, projects, or products that aim to positively impact the lives of communities affected by conflict and war in the Middle East. 20 Blossom Hill fellows engage children and youth every day in innovative ways across 15 programs in 10 countries. The foundation has reached more than 60,000 children in 23 countries, with programs that provide learning opportunities for refugee children through a Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurs.
The foundation has reached more than 60,000 children in 23 countries, with programs that provide learning opportunities for refugee children through a Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurs.
During the pandemic, things have been “challenging, to say the least,” Sarram said. “These are really vulnerable communities that need so much support. On top of it, to have a pandemic hit has not been easy.”
Of the refugee communities BHF currently works with from the Middle East, 65 percent come from Syria, then Iraq, some Palestinian families, and then very few Afghan and Iranian families.
“Greece handles the pandemic almost as good as you would expect. Those programs were least affected, but still affected. In a nutshell, it’s been a really challenging year for everybody, particularly refugee communities, as so many of these economies — refugees residing in their new home countries — their country is being hit hard by tourism, and lack of it,” Sarram said.
The good news is, Sarram says, that “program by program, fellow by fellow,” BHF worked with its fellows to reshape their programs. The foundation’s Facebook page contains videos which show how fellows pivot the logistics of their programs to meet the constraints and obstacles of the pandemic to change lives and promote well-being.
“It’s very hard to do Montessori Preschool online, but we found a way to get to the families, using even the one phone that somebody in the neighborhood might have to get materials to children so that learning can continue.”
The least affected programs, Sarram says, may be within BHF’s coding school because so much of it is online. “How do you run an orchestra online? We found a way. Everyone’s been very industrious, creative, and I would say, more committed than ever.”
Struggles of Operating a Nonprofit
“Nonprofits are struggling in so many ways,” Sarram said. “Mostly, fundraising is just very challenging right now. In that sense, we’re in the same boat as many nonprofits who have had to cancel fundraising programs. The economy is hit hard. Donors are, in some cases, cutting back funding to their favorite nonprofit, like we are for many.”
BHF’s fellows have met the past year’s challenges and earned Sarram’s praise. “They’ve been really innovative. We’ve funded a vocational school program for years, and one of our fellows in Athens pivoted immediately to selling masks and ensured distribution. It’s challenging, but at the same time, it’s absolutely incredible how creative people have been. Even making soaps! Hygiene’s a big piece, which is normally not what we do. We’re not the sort of distribution nonprofit, but right now, and in that immediate aftermath from March, our fellows were making sure their beneficiaries had masks and soap for hygiene.”
During BHF’s first five years in operation, the organization focused on refugees around the globe. “We were funding really innovative, effective programs in South America and Africa and in the Middle East. After five years, we did a strategy session and sort of patted ourselves on the back and said, ‘Wow, it’s incredible. We’ve supported the lives of 30,000 children and that’s awesome.’ We were proud of that work.”
BHF decided that they wanted to have more of a geographic focus, so now their focus is refugees from the Middle East. “It narrowed our scope,” Sarram said. “The other thing that we decided was that we wanted to fund innovative people doing the work. We didn’t necessarily want to fund programs. We take a good 12 weeks to evaluate our fellows before anybody gets funded. It’s a very rigorous process on how we select the people we are investing our time and money in. That ‘entrepreneur’ piece, our pilot fellowship program, rolled out in 2016. We just welcomed our fifth class of fellows!”
During the phone interview with ABPA Institute, Sarram shared tragic news that within a program in Afghanistan, BHF recently lost one of its students in Kabul, who was killed in a suicide bombing in the first week of November. Sarram had attended their graduation from the program. “I have the privilege of being able to virtually congratulate these incredibly dedicated, hard-working students, but there’s also the reality that we just lost one of them. It’s the first student we’ve lost but I got to be at her graduation, and we’re all really grateful that they were able to learn how to code. They got jobs. Instead of being sold off by their parents to marriage, they get to make an income and be independent women.”
They got jobs. Instead of being sold off by their parents to marriage, they get to make an income and be independent women.
Recruitment Efforts, Evaluation Methods
BHF uses its social media channels and works with universities around the globe to ensure university undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as others, know about opportunities for students.
“The wonderful thing about the nonprofit world is that everybody is out there to support each other. There’s no real competition. Everyone just wants to see each other succeed. A lot of times, other nonprofits will spread the word about us.
A proven and effective recruitment method for the nonprofit is when current fellows recruit other fellows. “For example, one of our fellows, a scientist from Columbia University, was at one of the refugee camps in Greece implementing science kits that she had invented and that we had funded. She ends up meeting some other volunteers and philanthropists in the field and they get to talking. Then that woman ends up being one of our fellows. She was writing the ultimate guide in terms of how you teach refugee communities, because it’s a whole different beast. She added a chapter in the online guide on science to share our fellow’s work. A lot of times, it’s just word of mouth between our fellows.”
“We don’t formally fund initiatives that are for-profit, and these are predominantly nonprofit-driven ideas,” Sarram said.
“For example, we’ve put together a consortium of three different apps for refugees that use technology to help them navigate the resettlement process. Basically, the apps follow the life of a refugee, from the moment you’ve left Syria and landed in, let’s say, Greece. OK, now you’re in Greece, but you need to learn the language, or you need to get a driver’s license. How do you do that? Syrian refugees are coming in boatloads to Greece, literally landing on an island with no documentation, trying to prove who they are and establishing asylum. All that information is accessible online and we continue to invest in technology.”
BHF is less focused on, ‘we really want to work in this region,’ and more focused on ‘where are the ideas coming from,’ Sarram said.
“We have a very rigorous methodology of how we score—first and foremost—the fellows. We’re investing in the fellows. They’ve got to be outstanding. They’ve got to be authentic. They’ve got to have a plan. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s got to be well-thought through, one that’s replicable. We have all these parameters which are all in the application.
“We also evaluate the idea. I would say geography is at the bottom of the list because there is so much need. Whether you are in Kabul or rural Afghanistan, there’s tremendous need. We want the ideas to come from the ground. They tell us where their need is and what the solution is, instead of us saying, ‘We really want to work in this part of Jordan.’ We’re totally kind of agnostic to that.
“Our programs really are so unique. We’ve got a program for these tiny little kids that’s more Montessori-driven and a dance program, so that’s going to have a totally different measurement than how you evaluate programs for the older youth. We have the data that shows that when you intervene, when you give them an opportunity to attend an orchestra, a basketball program, a yoga program, a super girls program, or a Montessori program, these children’s behavior completely changes. On the older side of the spectrum, it’s so quantifiable: ‘They got jobs.’ They would’ve otherwise been sold into marriage and they now have jobs. In that sense, it’s less by country and more programmatic.
Get Involved or Donate to Help BHF’s Work
Sarram provided a personal example and detailed how she left Iran at a very young age. “I came to Europe in third grade, came to America in fourth grade, and I feel like my father told me to never forget where I come from,” Sarram said.
“My hope with members of [ABPA Institute] is that they don’t forget where they come from. I personally think we have a responsibility to give back. I remember being at the airport in Iran and leaving and wondering why I have to leave during what was then a very devastating year and a half into the Iran-Iraq War. I have always felt like I’m grateful and blessed to have been able to leave and make a new life. I don’t forget for one day that it is my duty to give back.”
I don’t forget for one day that it is my duty to give back.
“I hope that we can engage ABPA Institute’s members in getting involved, because these programs are phenomenal. Any of your members are welcome to go visit our programs. I was supposed to go to Jordan in March 2019. I was in Greece and Turkey the year before. I hope that your members will choose to get involved. Our greatest need is financial, and we’re really proud of the fact that we have donors who give $10; we have donors who give $1,000; we have donors that give $10,000, and we have donors who started us off on the very first day with $100,000. We really welcome the financial support and involvement, even as little as $10.
“There’s also opportunities to be thought partners to our fellows. One of the things we really pride ourselves on is we don’t just write our fellows a check and say, ‘See ya!’ We really manage these programs and we also assign them a thought partner — I don’t like to call it a mentor, because a mentor has a connotation that someone is basically going to open all these doors for you. When we say thought partner, we mean thought partner.
“Let’s say you’re the fellow just running our sports program for refugees. How do you do sports when there’s a pandemic? You need some thought partners to think through how to do that safely and when it’s safe enough to do it. Your members can get involved as thought partners with us, but mostly, they can get on our social media pages.
“I hope ABPA Institute’s members know that even a $2 contribution makes an enormous difference in the lives of children, and hopefully you have a chance to go online and look at these children. They are sitting in their homes during a pandemic, writing their little cursive letters. Dr. Montessori has this whole philosophy of education for peace, which is why we invested heavily in that philosophy and implemented this program. That program is just one of fifteen programs that we’ve invested in. There’s a big menu, whether your members want to get involved in the programs for children or older youth.
“The United Nations defines ‘childhood’ as being from the age of zero to 24, so you can invest in a 19-year-old Syrian boy who’s going to learn how to code because of our program. $50 goes a long way. $500 goes a long way. $5 makes a difference. I hope that we can count on your community for support.”
“These are some tough days for nonprofits — it’s very hard to get any attention right now with everything that’s going on in the world. There’s a lot of great causes out there — we get it! Donors have a budget and there’s a lot of amazing causes out there, whether it’s cancer or the environment or animals or human rights. We totally get it. It’s just that you know the plight of refugees.
“Honestly, there’s no better place to invest your money because we are very focused on innovation, we are very focused on fellows that have dedicated their lives to this work, and we’re very dedicated to giving voice to our group of beneficiaries. Unless a little boy washes up on the shores of a beach somewhere, when’s the last time you heard any media coverage on refugees? Even the more credible, nontraditional media — when’s the last time the BBC did a story on refugees? It’s tough to get attention. The majority of our donors right now are Americans in Connecticut, in my community, and a lot of Iranian-Americans. Candidly, we would love to see more Arab-Americans get behind us.”
Candidly, we would love to see more Arab-Americans get behind us.
Internships at Blossom Hill
ABPA Institute has a partnership with BHF to place students into internships.
“We normally take one, maximum two interns,” Sarram said. “We acknowledge that this is a tough year for so many young people whose summer college courses and careers have totally been turned upside down. In 2020, by design, we took four interns. We are a very small nonprofit, but our interns get a real hands-on experience of what it’s like to (virtually) run a nonprofit, to understand:
- What the challenges are
- How we think through who we select
- What the selection process is like
- What is fundraising?
- How do you keep your donors engaged so they give to you year after year?
- What do you do to bring in new donors?
- How do you engage universities in making sure that the word gets out there about the scholarships, so we’re always seeing the latest and greatest ideas?
“We provide a really robust internship. We’re so small that everyone is kind of hands-on-deck. You see every aspect of it. We will continue to offer those opportunities because we know that young people, especially right now, need to get as much on their resumes and as much hands-on experience as possible.”
Applications for 2021 are available at blossomhill-foundation.org/fellowship.html
Donations to Blossom Hill Foundation may be given at blossomhill-foundation.org/donate.html