Humanitarian leaders, Nizar and Renata Alkurdi are doing what they can to help refugees

Last update: August 28, 2022
Reading time: 6 minutes
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In late 2013 a couple residing in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Nizar, and Renata Alkurdi took charge in a very personal mission to help Syrian refugees in need. Nizar, a Syrian who immigrated to the United States in 1983 with his wife Renata, who is originally from Poland, began their new lives in New York City, together they raised three daughters, now retired Nizar Alkurdi started a limousine company to support his family, today the limousine operation is run by one of his three daughters.

“Immigrating and starting a new life is not easy, and we did not face the atrocities of war” says Renata. The simple fact remained, the Alkurdi’s did not want to sit back grieve and become spectators of the situation in their beloved Syria. They needed to do something.

Opportunity arose when they discovered that there was a clothing drive being hosted in nearby Willow Grove. Their interest grew into action when they learned there was no plan in place to redistribute the collected donations, and from there, they set out to find a way to ship them to the refugees in Syria devastated by the civil unrest.

First, they solicited more donations, and as word spread the in-kind donations followed. Their split-level home in Bryn Mawr became a collection site for a time, their large living room overflowed with bags of clothing piled from the floor to their 12+ foot high ceilings. It quickly became apparent they needed a warehouse.

After finding a suitable location, they transferred the items to the new warehouse and teamed up with a friend in the shipping industry to send the first container. The big day arrived, and loading took place. On December 3, 2013, the first official container was dispatched to help Syrian refugees in need.

Within the following 24-months, 30 containers of support were shipped overseas, to Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria.  They formalized their operations by establishing Narenj Tree Foundation a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, naming their middle daughter Natalia Sara Alkurdi as president.

When asked about their humanitarian efforts, Renata responded, “It was a natural impulse to act, it came swiftly and without any hesitation” In an article published by the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2015, Nizar Alkurdi was quoted about why he felt the need to respond to the crisis. “Alkurdi then pulled out his cellphone, which carries photos of atrocities, and thumbed to one of a baby with a tracheotomy, and missing parts of all four limbs. "She is still alive," he said. "Imagine the pain she had." This is just one of many examples Alkurdi shared with reporter Ryan Lessard. Nizar decided that he could not simply sit back and fall into depression.

With the outpouring solidarity of support from everyone involved, Narenj Tree Foundation continued focusing on the collection of gently used clothing, shoes, toys, and linens to ship overseas. By placing donation bins throughout Pennsylvania to assist in the collection process the foundation averaged two container shipments a month totaling 89 containers in total shipped to refugees in need.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, shipments ceased due to changes in regulations.

As donations continued to flow in the Alkurdi’s faced a new challenge, what to do with the donations? To remedy the situation volunteers suggested a thrift shop, like all initiatives at Narenj Tree Foundation, it is the community suggestions and requests from donors that are incorporated into the mission and acted upon. “We would be no where without the support of our community” says Renata Alkurdi.

Soon the move took place, December 2020 the thrift shop opened in nearby Fairview Village. The new site offers both a storefront and a warehouse attached to allow for storage and sorting. In July 2021 a container was shipped to Afghani refugees to respond to the turmoil that erupted within Afghanistan. Additionally, a voucher program was initiated to offer new arrivals in the area with refugee status the opportunity to have a shopping experience within the thrift shop, with a $100.00 voucher granted to refugees in need, shoppers are welcome to stop in and make personalized decisions about what they need from the selection available.

Along with many additional initiatives that have been developed over the years, including business ventures made possible by sponsorships to aid in the employment of refugees, water wells for indigenous societies in Africa, orphan sponsorships, educational initiatives, and surgical sponsorships, Narenj Tree Foundation has grown rapidly.

Today the goals of the foundation remain to ship aid to refugees with an enhanced focus on the most current refugee crisis. With new affiliations, shipments that are set to proceed in the future will include new items rather than gently used, and the gently used items will be repurposed through thrift shop sales and other distribution opportunities.

An enhanced effort in sponsorships of orphan support is in place to ensure more lives are being supported with the financial donations being contributed.

Narenj Tree Foundation is enhancing the focus on the bin initiative, placing more bins in diverse locations to assist in the ongoing need of in-kind donations. The goal to is to revamp the container shipments to their original pace, of two containers a month.

The team we have in place made up of both volunteers and a workforce is an eclectic mix of all ages, races, and professions. Our affiliations range between local, national, and international nonprofits and for-profit businesses, and our contacts in foreign governmental agencies have grown significantly. Together we are moving forward in our mission with our strong work ethic and a lot of teamwork.

Presently we are working tirelessly to prepare for the next container shipment. Allocating some in-kind donations to our local communities in support of refugees who have relocated to the Tri-State area. Our process of sorting items helps to ensure that both climate conditions and cultural appropriations are considered prior to distributing. In collaborating with local houses of worship we have established a system to provide essential support to those here in the United States without depleting any of our resources for shipment. We accomplish this by creating collection drives from the same locations we are supporting with our in-kind contributions. Thankfully it balances out perfectly!

The road ahead is exciting and adventurous. Our plans include acquiring an additional warehouse location to offer a centralized location for shipping and receiving. We are developing the schedule and finalizing the venue to begin an annual fundraising event. The next sponsored project is a flea market concept which has been introduced by a generous donor who is looking to establish a total of ten markets in various countries to offer the sale or bartering of products which acts as a sustainable intervention to those impacted by crisis. Even when a crisis concludes, their effects can be devastating for many years, emphasis in this proposed project is to offer an alternative support process to humanitarian aid.

Because humanitarian aid is our focus, we are encouraged to place distribution centers in Yemen, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, and Venezuela. This process includes establishing a work force, acquiring a site for operations, following compliance requirements within the prospective country, and lastly funding. Based on our annual budget we have not met the requirements to move forward yet, but in time we are entrusting the generous support of our contributors to make this project a success. In the past we had a distribution center in Syria and have used affiliate organizations in the distribution process of container shipments. We believe that an established distribution center will mobilize the communities we serve more effectively and offer an ongoing resource to the displaced communities in need.

A focus on trauma recovery and mental health services has been placed on our agenda. We have experienced so much success with our Art Therapy program and find that growth starts in the hearts and minds of those effected by trauma. It is our intention to formalize an initiative that will offer emotional support services to the very people we supply with humanitarian aid. This process includes qualified individuals who can work in either individual or group sessions with trauma victims for an extended period. We trust we will find the most qualified volunteers to spearhead this project to ensure long lasting success. 

Like the bittersweet narenj fruit, while we are dismayed by the ongoing suffering caused by a crisis or the situation of our impoverished fellow man, we are honored to be a part of the process to alleviate the hearts and minds of those in need. To such situations we say: We see you, we hear you, and “Help Is On the Way”.

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