In each of our lives there are seasons of plenty and seasons of paucity. For Hayley Smith, a lengthy season of illness and pain led her to knowledge and experiences that prepared her for an abundant life of service. Through her organization, Lifting Hands International, launched in February 2016, Hayley extends aid to individuals and families who are struggling through seasons of hardship brought on by the Syrian Civil War. No one tells her story better than Hayley herself, so what follows are her own responses from our email interview.
What does Lifting Hands International Do?
Our mission encapsulates what we do:
We provide humanitarian aid to refugees, both at home and abroad. No politics. Simply humanitarian.
We specifically run the following programs:
– in AZ, we furnish incoming refugee apartments. Federal law mandates that refugee apartments are fully furnished BEFORE they arrive. Without LHI, the refugee family’s caseworker must buy furniture for their apartment, and the refugee family must pay for it from a very small stipend that is meant to cover three months of rent and food before they are basically forced to become self-sufficient. They have no choice about the furniture, and it sets them back financially and is not the best welcome to the USA. When LHI furnishes an apartment, we not only save the new family precious funds, but we also give them a warm welcome from the community. Transition from refugee life to resettlement in the USA is incredibly hard and challenging. If this service gives them a little welcome and a head start, we have succeeded.
– in Utah, we collect items (from a specific list compiled by refugee workers abroad), pack them, label them, and ship them in partnership with Helping Hand for Relief and Development (HHRD) to refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. HHRD distributes the aid. We love working with them.
– in Jordan, we buy milk-producing goats for Syrian refugee families who live in tents year-round. Most of the families fled Syria 3-4 years ago, after witnessing horrific destruction. They live in isolated parts of Jordan, where they have little access to nutrition and protein. Having goat’s milk gives them that nutritional boost they need. It also gives them a livelihood and restores their dignity. It has been an incredibly successful program. All of the families who receive goats sign contracts stating that they will not sell or eat the goat. All families who receive goats owned several back in Syria. Having goats again restores a tiny part of a life that they once knew.
– In Greece, we run a community center that serves a camp of 400 Iraq Yazidis, all of whom survived a horrific genocide in 2014. We are not based in the camp, but on a site about 200 feet from the camp. We teach English, German, yoga, music, and dance to several dozen people, mostly adults. We also distribute hygiene items, fresh food, and dry foods once a week.
Why did you choose to launch a new organization rather than working with an existing organization?
This is a massive refugee crisis — the largest exodus of refugees since WWII. We’re talking millions and millions and millions of people being forced from their homes. Due to this, a lot of large orgs can only do so much and have to focus on certain aspects. For example, UNHCR (UN’s refugee arm) focuses on registration. Doctors Without Borders treats emergency cases. Save the Children provides educational activities for kids.
But who makes sure that people don’t send crappy clothes as donations? No one. Who makes sure that people send men’s clothes because everyone only sent women’s and baby clothing?! No one. Who makes sure that certain camps get enough food for the summer months? For some camps, no one. Who made sure that several thousand people got a new change of underwear after wearing the only pair they own for weeks at a time? No one.
Without small grassroots groups like LHI, so many needs would fall through the cracks and so many people would suffer more than they already have and do. Large organizations are often limited and even crippled by international law, corruption, politics, etc. They can’t get in and fill in the gaps like small groups can. This is why I started LHI rather than join another org.
If someone is not an Arizona or Utah resident, can they still help Lifting Hands International?
Absolutely. The vast majority of our supporters live outside of Utah or Arizona. The best way to help our org, and any org, is to donate funds. We use these funds to directly buy goats, vegetables, shampoo, diapers, etc. for refugees. It also allows us to pay for our warehouse and team apartment rent in Greece, gasoline, and other very practical things that we couldn’t do without money.
I know, I know, people want to know how to get their hands dirty and REALLY HELP. But seriously, money is the best way to truly make a difference. It’s not what people always want to hear, but without money we literally cannot do anything we do.
We also have an Amazon wish list for items to be sent to our warehouses in AZ and UT.
What inspired you to start Lifting Hands International?
In order to properly answer this question, we have to go allllll the way back to 2005. I became bulimic during my second year at BYU. There were all kinds of reasons for it, some I still can’t quite identify after all these years of being in recovery. It was just a lot of years of unhealthy thinking habits, brain chemistry, emotional makeup, etc, that caused my thoughts to constantly fire missiles of self-loathing and self-hatred at myself. It was a tough time, and the numbing effect of bulimia got me through it until it stopped working. I dropped out of school and entered the Center for Change in Orem, Utah, where I spent the next four months receiving intensive personal therapy, group therapy, music therapy, art therapy, dance therapy, etc.
After I got out of the center, I once again found myself feeling lonely, different, isolated, and my best friend started dating someone seriously, which really shook me. So, back to isolating myself, back to sneaking off and binging/purging, back to punching trees or cutting my legs with my keys (weird, I know, but every self-harmer has his/her own little tricks), back to lying, back to suicidal thoughts, etc.
One day, I woke up and realized that I would end up dying if I continued down this path once again. I was in a good mood that day and decided to put all the skills I’d learned at the Center for Change to good use and do something positive and healthy for myself. I decided I wanted to learn a foreign alphabet. So, I drove to the Provo Library, went up to the language section, and randomly picked up a book called Alif Baa: The Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds. The second I opened it, I felt something like electricity. Something like falling in love. I somehow knew that this was going to be my life. I checked out the book, learned how to read Arabic words, even though I didn’t know the meaning, and signed up for Arabic 101 at BYU, during what was meant to be my last semester of college!!
Sure enough, I found myself on a trajectory that would lead me on a wild ride! Arabic swept me away from my depression and eating disorder through a journey of adventure, recovery, and general progress in life. I went to Morocco for a study abroad, where I lived with a humble Muslim family in the middle of an ancient city. Then I ended up in London for a MA in Middle Eastern Studies. Then on to Egypt, where I immersed myself in Arabic for four months. Fast forward a few years to Boston, where I taught high school Arabic for two years to the best and brightest of Boston Public Schools. I even got to spend a summer in Jordan, improving my Arabic and filming short videos about Jordanian teenagers for Arabic classroom use.
A few years ago, I decided to quit my job and move to Arizona to be closer to family. Having an office job and living in suburbia was a huge and painful adjustment. I am a restless and ambitious person, so you can only imagine the challenge. But the new job gave me time to read about what was going on in Syria, a part of the world I am deeply interested in. I’d always known about the Syrian Civil War since it started in 2011, but it wasn’t until the refugee crisis started spilling into Europe via Greece that I started paying more attention to the refugee aspect of the war.
Since I lived closer to family now, I could leave during the holidays, rather than spend holidays visiting family, so I went to Greece to lend my Arabic skills for a few weeks. Those weeks changed my life. You know what’s strange is that I handled the chaos, the ups and downs, the smiles and tears, exhaustion, etc. of those two weeks quite well. I enjoyed meeting such wonderful people and listening to their stories. It was after the whiplash of returning to Arizona, where many people hadn’t even heard of Syria, let alone knew about the refugee exodus. I knew something had to be done to channel the goodwill of the people of Arizona. I also knew it was up to me to reach their hearts and let people know what was happening to families just like theirs across the world.
That’s why I started LHI.
Like Hayley, we each have talents that are unique to us that can bless the lives of others. What are you passionate about? What are your talents? May we, like Hayley, move with the seasons and “lift up the hands that hang down.”*
To learn more about Lifting Hands International or get involved, please visit http://www.liftinghandsinternational.org/
Written by Elisabeth S. Weagel
*Doctrine and Covenants 81:5