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Halifax girl helps refugees as part of bat mitzvah project

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Sylvie Anderson

When Sylvie Anderson was preparing for her bat mitzvah at the Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Halifax, Rabbi Raysh Weiss asked her to do a mitzvah project, but “Sylvie already had a project going and it was entirely of her own vision,” according to Rabbi Weiss.

“No parents or teachers told her to embark on this project. It was entirely her initiative, beginning two years before.”

In an interview, Sylvie said that, “When I was 10 years old in Grade 5 at Bedford South School, a Syrian refugee girl arrived. She knew no English, was far behind what we were doing in class, wore the same clothes to school day after day, didn’t eat very well and looked like she needed help.”

Sylvie and a couple of friends decided to take action.

“We wondered what we could do to help her, and refugees generally. We did some research about refugee organizations and started raising funds to send to refugee camps (through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)),” she said.

Last year, at age 11 and in Grade 6, Sylvie met with the executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic and spoke with officials at the Nova Scotia Department of Education about providing more translators and English as a second language teachers in the classroom. She also spoke with education students at Mount St. Vincent University about the situation and stressed how they could make a difference when they became teachers.

READ: LETTERS REVEAL THE STRUGGLES OF JEWISH REFUGEES IN PERU

The three students raised over $1,400 for UNHCR. “When fundraising hit obstacles, we thought of what this girl was like when she arrived at our school and how many children were still in camps and suffering, and that motivated us to keep going,” Sylvie said.

With her bat mitzvah less than a month away, Sylvie spoke to over 100 members of the Shaar congregation on the Saturday following the Pittsburgh shootings and received kudos for what she and her friends were doing.

At her bat mitzvah on Dec. 1, she tied her work to the story of Joseph, who was forced from his home like modern refugees. She talked about how her great-great-grandparents came to Canada from eastern Europe and were warmly welcomed by the local Jewish communities.

“We can pay forward our gratitude for my family’s original treatment upon arriving in Halifax by extending ourselves to the newest waves of refugees arriving here,” she told the shul audience. “We should help refugees, whoever they are, because we are Jewish and we have been in their shoes.”

As she told them what she and her friends, had done, she added, “Imagine what we could do as a community, to make a difference.”

Rabbi Weiss is very proud of her student. She said that Sylvie is motivated, passionate about what she’s doing and a real inspiration. “Her social consciousness is unusual, even for adults,” the rabbi said.

I realize there are problems in the world – war, racism – and we have to think of a solution to it.
– Sylvie Anderson

Sylvie has other activities on her plate, as well. She’s studying piano and swims competitively six days a week, while attending Hebrew school. She wants to be a neurosurgeon. “I want to save lives and I like to help people,” she said.

“I realize there are problems in the world – war, racism – and we have to think of a solution to it.”

When asked if there really is a solution, she said that she’s “doing what I can do.”

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