Anchorage 5th grader’s postcard effort lifts spirits of refugee children

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In response to learning of displaced refugee students around the world, nine-year-old William Scannell, a parishioner of St. Benedict Church in Anchorage and a student at Pacific Northern Academy, launched a postcard campaign to show “love and comfort” to those suffering.

A batch of cards sent last October went to refugee children in Syria. Middle East aid worker Zerene Haddad works with the children and spoke about the postcard campaign with Catholic News Agency in March from Beirut.

Haddad is in charge of Regional Advocacy and Communications for Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East and North Africa, where the organization offers emergency assistance along with educational and psychosocial services to refugees. The regional office serves more than 2,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria.

The majority of the children served in Lebanon have experienced some sort of trauma, Haddad told CNA, saying that “they all have stories” of losing friends, family members or witnessing some form of extreme violence.

Many times children in refugee camps “look empty, or they just look numb,” she told CNA, explaining that in her experience the recovery process for a child affected by war and violence “comes down a lot to the ability of the child to express themselves.”

The lack of vocabulary and emotional maturity to process their experiences can have a very negative effect on children, Haddad observed, begging the question “how do you help this child? What are you able to do when the child is so young?”

Amid this distress, came the batch of uplifting postcards from Alaska. Haddad called it “an old-school pen-pal system.”

Last year, Scannell hatched the postcard plan — called Any Refugee — and then convinced his fifth grade class in Anchorage to participate by drawing pictures on one side, writing a message on the other, and sending them to refugee children around the world.

According to a report from KTVA Anchorage, Scannell said sending a postcard to anyone is a sign that someone cares.

“And also to fill them with happiness, because they didn’t even know the person and yet they still got a postcard,” he said.

Scannell launched a website, anyrefugee.org, instructing others how to participate.

“I care about people and the world I live in and want to make life better for everyone,” he states on his website. “The idea for Any Refugee came from a story I heard from my dad about how people used to be able to send letters to Any Soldier. He got a card one Christmas a long time ago when he was in the army. So, I took this idea and put it to help refugees, to love and comfort them.”

When the children in Lebanon received the recent batch of postcards from Anchorage, it launched a “very interesting dynamic,” Haddad told CNA. She noted that the refugee children responded by drawing mostly positive, happy things.

Some children asked Haddad what to draw in response to the Alaska postcards, saying “I don’t want to draw about politics, I don’t want to draw about war.”

“It’s very interesting seeing the children reject that narrative,” Haddad said, “they just want to be children…they take the time to recover and that’s how they move forward.”

In February Scannell and his father Bill Scannell went on a mission to Beirut to work with Jesuit Refugee Service. Young William speaks Arabic and has been studying the language for more than three years. During the recent mission he helped teach art therapy classes to refugee children.


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