Nine-year-old Adnan would not meet Olga Zolotova’s eyes or return her smile when she first saw him at the Jusoor school in one of the refugee camps in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.
The 25-year-old assistant manager in Mitsui & Co’s food division, was puzzled as to why the Syrian refugee child refused to smile. ‘It took a while for me to realise that the reason was the war. It had affected him and the other children seriously,’ she says. Over time, she was able to draw out Adnan and the other equally reticent students to talk about their lives. She was there to see for herself who she was going to raise funds for through her sporting challenge in Dubai in May. In a few days, Olga found them anxiously waiting with tentative smiles for her visit to their class.
‘I then promised myself that I would do whatever I could to help these poor children,’ says the Russian who is working in Dubai.
Thus began Olga’s mission to help raise funds for Jusoor, a US-based nonprofit organisation that has been working in Lebanon since 2013. Olga took a week off from work to go to the Bekaa Valley to see for herself the condition of the children, and the work being done for them.
She was appalled when she saw the school. The children are housed in makeshift tents each of which shelters some 20 children, she says. The children sit on mismatched benches and desks obviously salvaged from discarded junk. The teacher’s table is again what began its’s life as somebody’s dining table. The tents lack basic amenities and are unprotected from the elements. There is insufficient lighting, inadequate ventilation, and poor sound insulation.
But what she saw happening there inspired her. ‘It affected me totally, seeing those children, their initial apathy and then the eagerness to learn,’ says Olga. ‘More than half of them have lost their parents in the war. Their eyes are pools of sadness, despair. Depression hangs so heavy over them that it’s almost palpable. They are aged beyond their years. But when they come to the classroom and start learning it’s as if a weight is lifted off their shoulders. They become children again. It’s not just about teaching them to read and write, it’s about bringing them back into society.’
Millions of Syrians have been displaced by the on-going civil war, including at least 1.2 million who are registered as refugees in Lebanon. About 520,000 of them are children, and these are just the ones registered in Lebanon. A recent UNHCR educational assessment indicated that 80 per cent of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon do not attend school at all.
This is where organisations like Jusoor come in. It looks after 1,200 pupils in three schools in Lebanon.
Olga was convinced – she couldn’t wait to get back to Dubai to organise funds for her children. Olga is no stranger to collecting funds for charity through extreme sports. She hails from Siberia, where snowboarding was her favourite sport. In Dubai, where she’s been based for the past two years, Olga decided to combine sports with charity. ‘It gave the activity some meaning,’ she says. She preferred contributing to children’s charities because she’d had to work through her school (in Russia) and college (graduation in Russia and an MBA in Dubai). ‘I know how hard it is to get an education,’ she says. ‘That’s why I decided to contribute to charities for children.’
Once back in Dubai, Olga decided to put her sports training to good use to raise funds for Jusoor. She’s all set to run seven ultra-marathons across seven emirates in a span of seven days. An ultra-marathon is any run that covers over 50km. Olga plans to cover over 350km.
Olga is no stranger to such extreme sports. Or using them to collects funds for charity. Her first challenge for charity was cycling solo across the seven emirates, more than 400km, in 24 hours in October 2015. That was to raise funds to support children’s education in developing countries through the charity Dubai Cares.
In December 2015, she undertook a 200km-run in 24 hours to collect and distribute toys to patients at the Children Cancer Hospital (CCH) in Karachi. She managed to collect 100kg of toys from Dubai residents.
Those were trial runs for the real thing, she says. The fact that she’s seen and experienced what the children who will benefit from her charity are going through makes a huge difference, says Olga.
‘It’s impossible not to be moved,’ says Olga. ‘Over time the children spoke to me in Arabic which I don’t understand, but I could make out the emotions. The six year olds were very friendly, they dragged me to their class, showed off their friends… it was great.’
Olga hopes to contribute $7,000 (around Dh25,000) to Jusoor from this challenge. ‘It costs approximately $700 (around Dh2,500) to educate a child annually, so it should help put 10 children through school for a year,’ she says. ‘But more that I hope to raise awareness of this school. The school is also looking for books, school materials, and perhaps even volunteers to teach there.’
Olga is already planning her next extreme effort to help these children. ‘I aim to climb the Mount Everest next year hopefully,’ she says. ‘If it will help my kids I am willing to go to any length.’
To contribute to the cause, or to get in touch with Olga please email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: http://jusoorsyria.com/