Providing comfort to those who need it most: how Threadies is giving young refugees the chance to be children

a2abc41dd724b8c41461bd7e43a4c5f2Steve Lehmann, ND MBA ’14, was moved to act after seeing the devastating effects the earthquake in Haiti had on the children living there. Inspired by childhood experiences with his own stuffed animal, Boppy, he began designing a stuffed animal “coping kit” that would help restore childhood to children in need. In 2014 he enlisted the help of his college roommate at Valparaiso University, Andrew Jones, and the two co-founded Threadies

IMG_0581The road to Azraq refugee camp is harsh, and it was meant to be that way. Situated in the Jordanian desert along the borders of Syria and Iraq, the camp was originally constructed to host Iraqi refugees and in 2014 was overhauled to host up to half a million newly displaced Syrians. Like most refugee camps, Azraq was deliberately designed to be unpleasant – better to discourage Syrians from making themselves comfortable and settling down long term. But the barbed wire fences, police patrols, and endless stretches of desert that surround the camp give the distinct and opposite impression – that Azraq’s residents are not exactly welcome to leave. On entering the camp, one is immediately reminded of the other sort of planned community that shares this paradoxical quality. A prison.

For the aid workers who travel there daily from Amman, the two-hour bus rides to and from the camp can seem interminable. But for more than twenty thousand refugees that call Azraq home, the journey there was hell. Most families walked hundreds of miles to arrive at this barren stretch of desert. In Azraq, you will meet men who have been gassed, women who have been shot, and children who wet the bed each night dreaming of helicopters and machine gun fire. The drawings that children create in “child-friendly spaces” throughout the camp often feature barrel bombs and fire. It is hard to be a child in a refugee camp.

“[C]hildren who’ve been uprooted from familiar and safe surroundings need stability, friends, something of their own: An object as simple as a teddy bear can mean a lot. Having a toy to cuddle at night can strengthen their sense of safety.” – Sandra Malignant, Child Protection Specialist

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These children and the daily traumas that they face are what brought my best friend Andrew and I to Azraq this August. For more than two years, we’ve been working with experts around the world, as well as at Notre Dame, to design trauma coping tools specifically for the refugee camp context. The result is a specialty stuffed animal that parents, children, and humanitarian workers can use in evidence-based trauma healing exercises. Our pilot tests in Azraq were a big success, and our partner, International Medical Corps, is pushing us to get them out to children in other camps around the region. We’ve just launched a new business, Threadies, which will help us do just that by selling “identical twin” bears here in the US.

“The individual who is motivated by true charity labors skillfully to discover the causes of misery, to find the means to combat it, to overcome it resolutely.” – Pope Paul IV, Populorum Progressio

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As with all problems as large as the current refugee crisis, it can be hard to imagine that anything one could do would make any meaningful difference. Hosting one refugee family when millions are on the move? It feels likes a drop in the bucket. Creating stuffed animals to help kids deal with trauma? A band-aid. But as we learned at Notre Dame, and as the Catholic Church has always taught, it is exactly these little, personal actions that make a necessary difference in people’s lives, and even change the course of history.

Threadies creates stuffed animals that are sold as “sibling” pairs: one for you, and its twin for a child in need.

Moved to act? Check out Threadies’ Kickstarter video above, and support their campaign by clicking here!

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