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Three Spinners welcomes Syrian refugees

The Syrian refugee crisis has captivated the world’s attention. Here locally, a new nonprofit, Three Spinners, is creating a network of resources to benefit these refugees.

The organization is the brainchild of Alexandra van Doren, a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois. Because she focuses on Holocaust studies in her research, humanitarian efforts are always on her radar. Inspired by media coverage of the refugee crisis in Syria, van Doren reached out to a colleague in her department, Meagan Smith, who involved a third co-founder, Tim King.

“We started with a call to action on Facebook,” said van Doren, “but pretty much immediately we decided to become a full-on nonprofit.”

Three Spinners is dedicated to making Champaign-Urbana a safe and welcoming place for Syrian refugees to live. The U.S. has pledged to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter the country in 2016; to date, only 900 have done so. Organizations around the country expect a large influx of refugees in the coming months, and Three Spinners hopes that Champaign-Urbana will be able to participate in that process by qualifying as either a resettlement site or a satellite office of a Chicago refugee hub.

Three Spinners gets its name from a Syrian folktale, the moral of which is “no matter how little you have, you should give to those less fortunate than you.” The organization’s cofounders take this message to heart by seeking to provide resources including clothing, sanitary items, non-perishable food, furniture, language training, vocational training, and eventually temporary homes to Syrian refugees.

Three Spinners collects donations of items at Big Grove Tavern, the U of I School of Social Work, and Urbana’s Market on the Square. A full list of the items they need is available here.

Providing language training taps into the skills the organization’s co-founders are learning in their graduate studies.

“Since Meagan and I are doctoral students in comparative literature,” van Doren explained, “we each know several languages. We also recently completed an intensive course in Arabic so we can hold simple conversations. That experience helped connect us with people who speak the Syrian dialect of Arabic, so we’re continuing to learn more. And as graduate students, we have teaching experience, so offering language training was a no-brainer.”

In terms of providing vocational training, van Doren says that a benefit to starting an organization in a community of students is that they are all familiar with odd jobs. “We would like to broaden refugees’ vocational horizons and help them plug into the community,” she said. 

Most importantly, van Doren said that Three Spinners hopes to provide refugees with a community. Part of achieving that goal is educating Champaign-Urbana about the Syrian refugee crisis and what they can do to help.

“We have found that people in C-U tend to be split down the middle,” said van Doren. “They are either peripherally aware of the crisis, or they are very well informed and are looking for ways to get involved.” 

Van Doren said that of the 13 million Syrian refugees, half are children. “For us, there is no justification to turning a blind eye on this situation,” said van Doren. For this reason, while Three Spinners will have a non-discriminatory placement policy for its host homes, the organization prioritizes children with families. “We want to make sure kids can get back into the education system,” said van Doren. 

Overall, the community has been incredibly warm and welcoming to the mission of Three Spinners.

“We haven’t gotten pushback that we thought we might get because of the current political atmosphere in this country. People have been very generous. But I think there are undercurrents of fear as far as religion goes. Of course, many parts of the world are Islamophobic. We are a secular organization, but we work with churches, mosques, and Jewish temples because we are trying to foster an interfaith dialogue. That’s important because Islamophobic rhetoric is part of the reason why so few refugees from Syria are being taken by the U.S.” 

Van Doren hopes that those numbers will begin to change, at least in Champaign-Urbana, by late summer or early fall. When Syrian refugees do arrive, Three Spinners will be ready.

To find out more about Three Spinners or to get involved, visit their website.

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