By Haya Akbik
My freshman and sophomore year I was a hamster running on a never-ending wheel.
Before coming to the great city of Ann Arbor and joining the community of overachieving, curve setting, interview-prepping, blazer-wearing, Goldman Sachs-interning Michigan kids, my mind was set on accomplishing one thing during college besides attaining a high academic and life GPA: joining a community to help Syria.
If know me, you know that I am a first-generation American with Syrian emigrated parents (Although, I could be the Wikipedia picture for the Irish population). My family is very politically active against the current government in Syria because of…well…just read the news. My dad started a non-profit organization that goes to Amman, Jordan twice a year to provide pro-bono surgery, medication, and humanitarian relief to Syrian refugees. The organization is called Atlantic Humanitarian Relief. In fact, as I write this, AHR is on a trip and you can check them out on Facebook or Instagram or their website atlantichumanitarianrelief.org (they’re always taking donations) (end advertisement).
Needless to say I was excited to find a club that was dedicated to this cause that has been needing help since its inception in 2011. But, when I got to campus I didn’t find one that gave a holistic aid or educational approach to the situation. There was one organization that funded a Syrian orphan but it just wasn’t enough. So, as a meek freshman, I embarked on the adventure of starting my own club. I cleverly named it Students for Syria and I had some amazing Markley and AXO friends that so graciously helped it get off the ground (even when most of them had absolutely zero connection to any part of that world or to this cause).
The first year was low in fundraising revenue and low attendance as would be expected with a new club started by a first-year with little connections on campus. I was frustrated but didn’t lose hope because I knew everything good and successful happens with time. I had hope because in the back of my head I needed hope to not fail my parents, my country, and myself in this endeavor.
But then, with all good stories, came the conflict and the climax. Said orphan organization sent a mass email saying they were going to transform into a chapter of a larger, national organization called Students Organize for Syria. Any marketing or sales people may start to see where the issue ensued.
Although both organizations had the greatest of intentions (to help Syrian refugees) having two clubs with almost identical names is confusing for everyone and depletes the efforts of both orgs. It’s similar to Noah Cyrus coming into the music scene after Miley got her shit together (maybe an exaggeration but what isn’t these days).
After having a meeting with Noah (the other club), the hope I once had was quickly depleting. Skipping the politics and antics of the whole thing, our club decided to change our name in the hopes of distinguishing our “sounds” more (yes, I am still using the Noah/Miley reference). Thus, Syrian Humanitarian Aid was born. We still focused on fundraising for AHR and educating students about the war and connecting the refugees in Jordan with students at UM but Noah ended up overshadowing her sister.
In the middle of my sophomore year and in the middle of my 500 other extracurriculars that I had decided to toss myself into like a kid into a ball pit, I started to weigh cost and benefits like Professors Caldwell and Cho taught me that year. The amount of effort that was being put into this club by all its members was just not producing results that were worth it.
Then, people, even my friends, would come up to me and ask how Students Organize for Syria was doing. It was clear that Noah was taking the spotlight and so, at the end of my sophomore year, I thanked everyone who committed their time to my organization and showed me that they cared for the people of Syria. It was time to swallow my pride and “shut down operations”.
To say that I was sad or angry or hopeless was an understatement. Not only was my ego hurt that I couldn’t finish what I started or make it a big, meaningful org on campus, but more, I felt like a complete, utter, failure to everyone and myself. My dad created this über successful non-profit that is making a real difference and I couldn’t even raise money from a donut sale on campus? These refugees had the strength, determination, drive, and will to continue in their circumstances and I couldn’t get enough people to join a listserv?
But then, as it does, the sun rose the next days and I had some time to reflect. What was the point of being involved in all these extracurriculars and trying to start my own club? I was running on this wheel chasing the best resume in order to chase the best law school to then chase the best job that could actually do something about the Syrian crisis. How could I do all this while trying to make a small difference as an 18-year-old? I wanted to use my power, privilege, and knowledge for good use and start early but, that’s not how the cookie crumbles.
I realized that although there were so many great peers around me doing amazing things at such a young age, it wasn’t my time for that. Maybe, instead, I am meant to focus on my schoolwork and my familial/friend relationships first. Maybe, I have to build a strong foundation and focus on a couple things at a time so that later I can make a big splash. Maybe, the time I spend focusing on schoolwork, my job, or grad school search will yield greater returns for the people of Syria. Maybe.
Looking back at my club, I realized that although it was a failure by conventional definitions, I made a tiny difference anyway. I stirred the conversation about Syria in some parts of Greek Life where it may not have been on the forefront of people’s minds. I led fundraisers that raised enough money to fund 2 pro-bono surgeries for children through AHR. I brought together people from different corners of campus. I made new friends and I learned a lot about myself.
I don’t feel like a failure anymore. I am proud that I can gracefully and proudly say that I failed but that I am still focused on my goal of helping Syrians. I am a faithful believer in the phrase “everything happens for a reason”. This failed club taught me that you are never a failure if you take it in stride. Look at that failure right in the eye, say thank you, and look toward the sun because tomorrow it will rise, your new path will begin, and your big splash will come.