Pooja Pradeep talks to INKLINE about how an idea to send handwritten letters to Syrian refugee children led to the birth of a global change movement in Letters of Love.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin
In the year of 2015, when both TV channels and social media platforms lit up like fire, sparked by the image of a two-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Khurdi, washed up on Turkish shores – most of us would have been sitting comfortably in our homes as the horrible events unfolded right in front of our eyes.
Surely, for a few hours at least, Alan Khurdi and the plight of Syrian refugees dominated discussions across the globe. But, soon these would have petered off, probably with a concluding line that went something like: ‘It’s just so sad, I feel so sorry for them. Okay, what movie do you want to watch tonight?’ And maybe some amongst us noticed the utter indifference and were moved enough emotionally to have had a few sleepless nights. But, that was probably it, right?
No, it’s not a knock on humanity. When we talk and hear about victims in the scale of millions, it automatically becomes a very unmeasurable and untouchable quantity, one which we believe we can do nothing about. But, what we often forget to see is that a million is made out of one million 1’s. And, the few of us who do realise this would genuinely want to do something to help. The limitations we have with respect to money, freedom, nationality and all of that can lead us helpless.
However, this story of a 25-year-old from Calicut in India might be able to teach us a few things about it. Deeply affected by the images and stories that were coming out of the Middle East, Pooja Pradeep, who is an engineer turned educator, took a determined decision to act rather than sit and lament about it. She came up with a very simple idea – to send heartfelt handwritten letters to Syrian refugee children.
Sounds naive, even futile? And letters, but why? There certainly wasn’t a shortage of critics, but she kept going – got a couple of friends together, started a Facebook page and named it Letters of Love. She shot out more than 50 emails to various UN organisations, and by the end of 2015, Pooja successfully sent out 1300+ letters. Three years later, Letters of Love is a global change movement that is working towards a sustainable education solution for Syrian refugee children.
Pooja Pradeep talks to INKLINE about her journey so far, her love for children, and her belief in the absolute magic within every child that has the potential to change the world for the better.
INKLINE: It is clear as day, the passion you have for teaching. How did you find your calling?
Pooja Pradeep: During my final year of engineering I had the chance to be a dance field expert for MAD (a non-profit organisation that mobilises young leaders to ensure equitable outcomes for children living in orphanages and street shelters.) My college hosted the MAD Dream Camp, an annual camp where around 100-150 underprivileged and orphan kids came together for a week-long fun gala time. I was taking dance workshops for them.
There was this one child at the camp – a wonderful dancer – she had an anxiety attack while dancing. I sat her down, got talking to her and kind of figured that she was abused by her family and that’s why she had moved to a shelter home. But, because of which she had huge self-expression issues, particularly in front of boys. I started speaking to her more, got her friends together and started sharing ideas about gender, what they think it should be and what the society is like.
Got the boys in her class involved, we are talking about 9 to 10-year-olds, the way these boys came up with wonderful ideas being very cognizant of the fact that there is such a great equality that exists, really lifted her spirits.
Throughout the week, I integrated gender education with dancing – choosing the music, choosing choreography that way, and towards the end, she just bloomed with confidence and personality. Seeing that transformation inspired me and that’s what children do, they genuinely inspire me, all of them!
I: Humans of New York fame, Brandon Stanton’s #RefugeeSeries is said to have had a major impact on you. Was that your tipping point?
P: I was always a fan of Brandon’s work, even before he started with the #RefugeeSeries. It was so simple you know, even you can ask him easily, ‘Brandon covering refugee stories – picture after picture, story after story – what is the point of it all?’
It’s all in the simple details, something in every single picture had trauma, despair, disappointment; but every picture was also unique and you kind of figured that these are also people like you who like food, who like safety and who has a family – so you connect so much, so suddenly.
These millions that you thought were too big for you to affect becomes so personal to you, that is what really inspired me. So, I would look out for his stories every single day, even though I knew that I would be a mess after it. That really pushed me, that was my tipping point in fact.
I: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a lot. Why letters?
P: Children smile when they get a handwritten, colorful piece of note from a new friend. They smile! The idea of Letters of Love was just to spread smiles, it wasn’t anything fancy or monetary.
Letters of Love runs on the concept of doing whatever you can with whatever you have, wherever you are. And spreading smiles was at the core of our agenda because these kids are given resources – food, water, shelter – the baseline of Maslow’s Hierarchy is tended to but with respect to trauma, care and psychological well-being, not a lot of efforts are made.
Because ‘are you happy’ is a question that we never ask. So, to spread smiles – a very happy letter, doodled, colorful – like a gift on New Year, because it caters to the idea of hope and new beginnings.
I: Letters of Love has certainly grown in the last three years. Could you tell us more?
P: In October 2015, it was just 1300 letters. Now it’s ten times that and this new year we sent out more than 15,000 of them.
Also with time, we’ve realised that there is so much potential in the idea and that it can really mobilize so many other resources. Being an educator, it was imperative for me that children in privileged communities and fortunate circumstances learn how to empathize and come up with solution-based learning. That’s how the Sensitization Modules came into being, which teachers and educators can adopt worldwide. It’s an online drive link, with a lesson plan and enough teaching resources. I also give training to whoever is interested and they can deliver that in their classrooms.
Each sensitization module caters to cultivating empathy, raising awareness of the Syrian war and refugee crisis – because that is the case study we are using – and using that, thereby we are highlighting the potential of each and every child as a change agent, as in telling them at that age itself that, ‘Hey, whatever you do actually does make a difference and this is what is.’
Then there is also a Student Ambassador program where I train like these super kids to take these sensitization modules in their classrooms, lead drives, create clubs and look into how it’s working in their schools.
And this year, we piloted the Pen Pal project, which I’m very excited about. There are about 350 pairs – 350 kids in India have written to children entrapped by the war in Syria, those in the siege in Gaza as well as Syrian refugee children in Turkey – and they will be writing back, it’s like a full-circle letter writing exercise.
I: What is the future for Letters of Love?
P: In two weeks, we will be registering as an international non-profit based out of the US. I’ll be moving as the founder, as a full-time professional and I’ll be taking it forward. The vision of Letters of Love would be to come up with a sustainable solution model for refugee students – right now we send them letters which just give them happiness – sustainability for me is education and I want to come up with an educational model for refugee children who actually show immense potential.
I: What advice do you have for the people out there who want to be changemakers like you?
P: Let me tell you what I would not ask you to do. I would not ask you to leave your job or leave your luxury behind and start a non-profit or dedicate five hours a week for social service. None of that. I’d rather say, carry biscuits with you, in case you see a child on the road. Start at home, start on your street. In case you see your maid or house-help suffering from the lack of literacy or something like that help them with it.
You begin with small things and you begin from where it’s convenient, from wherever you are, whatever you can with your hectic work schedule and your priorities set in life, you don’t have to change anything.
It doesn’t make you any less of a human, everyone has different priorities and everybody is engineered in a different way. But even with that, you have power with you. You have the privilege of being born into fortunate circumstances, with a whole body and a functioning mind; you are powerful. But, what is the point of power if you don’t empower?