October 12, 2016

Stuart Senior Looks Beyond School, College; Her “Bombs to Books” Helps Syrian Children


BOMBS TO BOOKS: Rachel Asir, a senior at Stuart Country Day School, has created a foundation and launched a project to bring books and literacy to Syrian children in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.

This time of year is fraught with pressure for college-bound high school seniors, and Stuart Country Day School’s Rachel Asir is even busier than most. In addition to her daunting course load, she spends the hours of her week in rehearsals as a concert pianist, cellist, and Indian Classical dancer; responsibilities as president of the Stuart High School student body; practices and games on the varsity field hockey team and as captain of the South Jersey Devils Girls Rugby team — not to mention SAT and ACT tests, college visits, essays, and applications.

Transcending all these demands of her daily schedule, however, is Ms. Asir’s commitment to the mission of Bombs to Books, a global movement she and her brother Matthew launched last spring to bring books and literacy to children caught in the civil war in Syria.

Recalling the shock last fall when first seeing news reports and pictures of Syrian refugees, “I was horrified to learn that the majority of Syrian refugees were children,” Ms. Asir said. “These children have lost everything. Bombings and the civil war in Syria have not only destroyed their homes and communities, but also decimated schools and colleges.”

Having already created their own foundation to support education of underprivileged youth in America, Ms. Asir and her brother, who is currently on a gap year before starting freshman year at the University of Chicago next fall, decided to go a step further to address the needs for education and literacy for the children in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.

The 17-year-old young woman, who lives with her parents and brother in Princeton, emphasized the urgency of the situation. “Innocent young children caught in the Syrian war and the Syrian refugee crisis pose a clear and present danger,” she noted. “Deprivation and lack of education leads to radicalization. This is the goal of ISIS. These young children are confused, scared, insecure, and homeless and the older children are forced to grow up too fast to take care of their families in these desperate circumstances.”

The plight of teenage girls in the camps in particular struck Ms. Asir, whose Matthew and Rachel Asir Foundation (MRA), in conjunction with a HOPE 2012 project, had raised money for HiTops of Princeton. “I have been moved by the experiences of teenage girls becoming pregnant in the U.S. and the economical, social, and financial implications for them and their families,” she said. “I was disturbed to learn that many Syrian refugee girls are forced into child marriages since they do not have access to education and their parents do not have the ability to take care of them.”

Collecting Books

Among the goals of the Bombs to Books movement is to collect books and other reading materials, in order to help children cope with trauma and to nurture their healthy development. To that end, Ms. Asir and her brother last spring created a website and reached out to several local libraries and educational book publishers for books targeted towards children and young adults. They have also contacted airlines that fly to Turkey and Jordan for help in shipping the books.

“The response from local libraries has been phenomenal,” Ms. Asir said, ”and our goal is to raise about $200,000 worth of books. We still need volunteers to collect, sort, and package.” At Stuart, Ms. Asir has placed large totes for book donations in certain areas of the school so girls can donate used reading books and “gadgets like leap frog to help with reading and spelling.”

The next step for Ms. Asir, after she completes her college applications, is to sort and package the books and, after submitting those applications, to travel with her brother to two of the biggest refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey. She is looking forward to distributing the books, and ”we are trying to work with aid organizations serving the refugee community to see if I could teach small groups to read, write, and learn English and basic math.”

Ambitious Plans

Hoping to see Bombs to Books continue to grow, Ms. Asir expressed her desire to eventually include refugee camps in other countries around the world ”and show the positive value that books are better than bombs to bring about peace and reconciliation.”

In adhering to the motto of their foundation’s commitment to “making the world a better place through literacy,” Ms. Asir and her brother, in collaboration with the HOPE movement, have raised about $60,000 over the past seven years to support educational programs for America’s disadvantaged youth, including: a 2010 computer literacy and urban storyteller program in Camden; a 2011 pediatric epilepsy program for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; a 2012 adolescent pregnancy prevention program for HiTops; a 2013 juvenile justice project with the American Friends Service Committee; a 2014 project with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; a 2015 program to support the transition of returning troops back into their communities with the Student Veterans of America; and, last June, a program supporting Music Corps at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., using “adaptive music” to help rehabilitate severely wounded soldiers and service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ms. Asir, who described working 5-10 hours each week on her Bombs to Books project, looks forward to a career in law and public service. She said she plans to major in political science or government in college before attending law school.

“The Bombs to Books movement and the work of my foundation will be a part of my future in whatever career I pursue,” she said. “I just hope that I will have the time to do whatever I want to do to build this movement.”