As he clutches a cup of Angel Falls Coffee and flashes a big smile, his presence is friendly and unassuming. He sports short, curly brown hair, green eyes and olive colored skin. One of his favorite places to eat in Akron is Shawarma Brothers in Cuyahoga Falls because it reminds him of home, and his favorite type of candy is jelly beans.
His name is Saddam Sayyaleh. When people hear it for the first time, they oftentimes stereotype him as a terrorist and a threat to their safety. But Saddam isn’t here to make anyone uncomfortable. He’s just trying to help Global Ties Akron (GTA) reach its goal of connecting Akron to the global world one handshake at a time. Saddam’s passion for empowering youth through his nonprofit organization, ILearn, is what brought him here to Akron.
“The fact that he was so passionate about making a difference in the life of kids that were at risk and helping empower them to be successful is impressive,” Michelle Wilson, Executive Director of GTA, says.
Through ILearn, Saddam has inspired over 12,000 at risk youth to better their lives. He has created 12 Knowledge spaces in Jordan to help support kids through community engagement. Not only is he the founder of ILearn, but Saddam is an International Research and Exchange Board (IREX) fellow, a prestigious fellowship only awarded to top global community leaders. IREX has sponsored his trip to Akron, and he’ll be here until December 8 networking with Akronites, doing presentations for schools and helping GTA bring international delegates to Akron.
But getting to this point hasn’t been easy.
Saddam describes his childhood living conditions as “harsh.” But harsh doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how difficult his life sometimes was. Saddam grew up in Souf Camp, a Palestinian refugee camp located in Jordan. By five years old, Saddam had already lost both of his parents. He spent much of his time at a local orphanage and school.
Situations were especially traumatizing on days Saddam would get bullied. Sometimes the bullies were peers, and sometimes they were teachers.
“People treated me differently,” Saddam says. “When I started school, I started to recognize my weaknesses which was basically every kid can hit me and every teacher has absolute power over me because they know no one will defend me.”
Saddam felt stuck, so he started working odd jobs at 12 years old, sometimes in construction, and sometimes selling tea and coffee to local residents. By this point, he’d given up on school. He skipped most days, focusing most of his time on making as much money as possible.
That was when he met a Dutch man named Gilbert. Gilbert paid Saddam to teach him Arabic. Gilbert was one of the first people who expressed a real interest in Saddam.
“He felt responsible for me,” Saddam says. “He was just like, ‘I want to help this kid.’ He started taking me to Amman, buying me clothes and then trying to help me with my studies.’”
Despite Gilbert’s help, Saddam dropped out of school at 15 years old. By this point, Gilbert’s stay in Jordan was coming to an end. He left Saddam roughly $3,000 as a parting gift before leaving.
What Saddam did with the money changed his life forever.
“I decided to go to India.”
India was the cheapest option for Saddam, who just wanted a way out of Souf Camp. The trauma of watching his sisters marry too young and his brothers face the same pressures Saddam was facing made him want to leave.
In India, Saddam volunteered at an organization that helps abandoned children who are left behind by their parents. He was about 18 years old at this point and trying to grapple with all of the suffering he was seeing.
“I went into chronic depression,” Saddam says. “I attempted suicide a few times. I couldn’t make peace with myself and I couldn’t make peace with what was happening around me.”
After he ran out of money in India, Saddam returned to Souf Camp. He noticed that all of his peers were still in the same situation he’d left them in. They had no jobs and no futures.
“I realized there was a vicious cycle that keeps going and going and going,” he says.
After spending some time in Jordan and saving money, Saddam returned to India and worked for the World Health Organization (WHO). This time around, Saddam noticed the Sri Lankan refugees in India and how they were helping one another succeed through small acts of kindness like cooking for their neighbors and taking care of the elderly.
Saddam was shocked to see so much generosity within the community, and he wanted to create that type of environment in Souf Camp.
“I no longer wanted to see kids being subject to abuse,” he says.
With the collaboration of startup businesses, University students, volunteers, teachers and underused public spaces, Saddam created his first knowledge space for youth.
Currently, ILearn is a nationally recognized organization in Jordan. Saddam is currently managing it while he’s in Akron helping GTA with projects. One of the projects Saddam is helping organize is the International Visitor and Leadership Program, which GTA frequently hosts through the help of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs with the U.S Department of State.
On October 4, 2017, GTA brought in a group of 11 Iraqi educators and leaders to Akron to discuss the topic of Psychosocial Rehabilitation in the Post Da’esh (ISIS) Era. The group met with the International Institute of Akron, Summit Psychological Associates and AkronPeace Makers to discuss how best to help youth who have been traumatized by ISIS.
One of the delegates, Ansam Adil, works with youth and displaced people at the International Organization for Migration in Iraq. She participated in the delegation to gain a better understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder. Ansam says there are over 3.1 million internal displaced people that her organization is trying to help.
“These people suffer from trauma and suffer from many psychosocial problems because they feel and live in violence,” she says.
But the delegates aren’t the only people who benefit from this program. The last portion of the day included a short session with Akron PeaceMakers, an anti-crime/youth civic program. Students from STEM High School including Eva Soucek, Eric Swatson and Aaron Brown presented to the delegates about ways they’ve promoted peace and understanding within our community.
Meeting the delegates is a huge learning experience for the teens and helps them think outside of their own community and into a more global perspective.
“It gives me the opportunity to see a new perspective on life, gain a new experience and learn a new story,” Aaron says.
The teens also gain leadership experience and learn how to talk to people who look and speak a different language than them.
Summit Psychological Associates Akron was equally excited to meet with the delegates. Dr. James Orlando, president of the organization, says his staff benefits because they learn about other cultures, and that perspective helps them treat people from different cultures on a local level.
“I think it teaches you that people are people, no matter where they are in this world,” he says. “The more you speak to the people who come here from these other nations, the more you realize people react to situations the same way and they have the same sorts of needs and desires that we have here.”
The Summit County Psychological Associates also participated in the delegation with leaders from the Democratic Republic of Congo. James says his organization is still in contact with them, frequently emailing back and forth and exchanging information.
It’s these types of interactions that Michelle hopes to continue through Global Ties Akron. She’s been working with GTA for 27 years and started with the organization as an intern.
Michelle loves the Know Your Community, Know Your World project, which helps link Akron Public School kids to students and leaders from other countries. Kids who have a chance to meet with international leaders or Skype with kids from other countries are always fascinated.
“It’s immediately gratifying,” she says. “They immediately change their perspective of who they thought someone from that country would be. And so that starts building curiosity and shows them how to be more open minded and learn from who are different from them.”
GTA recently helped an Elementary School in the North Hill community, where teachers were struggling with student-to-student discrimination. Michelle was able to bring in GTA and do day-long workshops and sessions about empathy and compassion with the students. She even did a live connection with a school in Ghana.
The Girl Scout students from both schools immediately got along and even started singing the same songs.
“It was incredible,” she says. “They were singing together across all these miles.”
Currently, GTA is working on unveiling a project called Connecting Communities through Cultural Heritage, a citizen’s journalism initiative which will connect Akron to Kikinda, Serbia.
But in the meantime, Saddam is going to continue working with GTA, exploring Akron and continuing to help youth reach their potential in Jordan.
“This fellowship is about a mutual knowledge exchange,” he says. “GTA is helping me learn new things and I’m helping them learn new things too.”
Learn more about Global Ties Akron by visiting their website at globaltiesakron.org.
Learn more about ILearn by visiting their Facebook page at facebook.com/ILearnJo
//BIO: Noor Hindi is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at The University of Akron. She is usually very nervous. Check her out at nervouspoodlepoetry.com.