Haya Kaliounji and her family were forced to flee their hometown in 2012 after a civil war broke out in Syria. After staying in Lebanon for six months, her family moved to the United States on her mother’s work visa in search of a new life in Los Angeles.
Kaliounji, a third-year physiological science student, embraced a new life but wanted to continue supporting people back in her hometown. She began a nonprofit called Rise Again in 2015 that provides prosthetic devices to Syrian people who have lost their limbs due to the war. So far, Rise Again has helped 22 people.
She created Rise Again through the Gold Award project for Girl Scouts. The Gold Award is granted to Girl Scouts who successfully complete a seven-step project designed to benefit their community. Recipients of the award are eligible for certain college scholarships and military advancements.
“(My troop leader) gave me a few examples of what girls do here, but I thought of doing something to help the Syrian community,” Kaliounji said.
Kaliounji said she initially tried to come up with a project to help Syrian refugees in the U.S. but then realized that she wouldn’t be able to provide the health care and education that refugees needed. Instead, she decided to create the prosthetic limbs nonprofit to help her old community in Aleppo.
Kaliounji said an individual who needs a limb contacts a prosthetic technician in Aleppo, who then refers them to her. She added she determines whether the individual is eligible based on their application, which includes questions to ensure they are not affiliated with any of the terrorist organizations in Syria.
Tamara Arida, an adjunct faculty member in social sciences from Pasadena City College, helped Kaliounji’s nonprofit in its early stages by allowing Kaliounji to use her class as a platform to raise money. Students in Arida’s class had the option to raise money for charities like Kaliounji’s instead of writing a paper, as Arida believed it is important for them to master the skill of advocacy. Arida said she thinks Kaliounji’s ability to think realistically and optimistically at the same time contributed to her success. Kaliounji transferred to UCLA from Pasadena City College in 2017.
“She realized her first goal was too big, but she didn’t stop,” Arida said. “I think it’s that presentation of personality and humility that separates her.”
Kaliounji began her project with the goal of helping provide prosthetics for three people. However, she ended up raising enough money for five Syrian children to receive prosthetic devices that replaced limbs they had lost as a result of missiles and explosions in the war. Fueled by exceeding her own expectations, she continued with her project on her own for a year before joining her church to access the Syrian Christian community in July 2016.
Kaliounji’s father has traveled to Syria several times for business since the family immigrated to the United States and was present when the first child his daughter had helped began walking for the first time with his prosthetic.
“(The boy) knew there was someone helping him pay for the device, but he didn’t know who it was or where they were,” she said. “My dad was there with him when he started to walk, so he gave him a drawing to give to me as a thank you, and I still have it today.”
Arida said she thinks Kaliounji’s mission resonates with American students because of her earnest attitude.
“I strongly believe that she walks into every classroom, every experience in her life with an open mind. Most Americans want to volunteer, but people get disconnected as a consequence of the bureaucracy,” Arida said. “She brings that human element.”
Fouad Sayegh, Kaliounji’s pastor who advises her on the nonprofit and helps her advertise at church events, said Rise Again tries to help all individuals regardless of their religious or political background.
“We started to help adults, too. For example, a mother who has six kids, because in helping a lady like this we are helping six kids too,” he said. “We don’t ask about religion, we just see a human being who needs help.”
Despite having to balance her classes and extracurriculars, Kaliounji is still dedicated to continuing Rise Again and said she hopes to expand the charity during her time at UCLA.
Sayegh said he thinks this commitment makes Kaliounji’s work even more inspiring.
“She loves this job – it’s her baby,” he said. “We call her the resurrection girl. And this makes her very happy.”