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"We can all do something." That was the main message shared by Nour Al Zouabi and members of the James Hillhouse High School UNICEF Club when they visited The Country School on Friday to talk about their effort to support the rights of every child. Nour, who spoke as part of our Elmore Leadership Speaker Series, explained that she decided to start a UNICEF Club at Hillhouse for three reasons: She wants to educate others about the plight of children around the world, she hopes to raise funds to support UNICEF's work, and she wants to give back out of gratitude for all she and her family have received.
A senior at Hillhouse in New Haven, Nour and her brother, Ahmed, a freshman, talked about their family's journey to the United States from Syria and what it was like to live as refugees in Jordan before being resettled in Connecticut two and a half years ago through Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, or IRIS.
"At the beginning of the school year, I felt like this is the time to start to giving back," said Nour, who plans to study biology, languages, and pre-med in college. "I know a lot of people will help me, but there are millions of kids who don't have this help, and there's no one to tell them, 'I'm next to you.' I decided UNICEF was thing I really wanted to do."
Nour said she explored other organizations she could support, but ultimately settled on UNICEF because "I feel it's the only organization that can go to the most dangerous places and everyone can have access to it. The most important thing to me was their mission, which says that everyone deserves the right to be a human."
Nour talked about some of the ways she and her club members are seeking to educate others, including a Water Walk they held last weekend, an activity which simulates the walk children across the world must make each day to find potable water. Before Nour and her fellow UNICEF Club members arrived, students in Grades 4-8 watched a short UNICEF video about a 13-year-old Ethiopian girl who must walk eight hours each day to collect water for her family. According to UNICEF, she is just one of 2.1 billion people around the world without access to safe water.
Nour believes that, working together, we can do something about these situations. "The most important thing is to believe that everyone has the right to be human and believe in their dreams," she said. "I have dreams. I believe you have a dream, too, to become something one day. They also have dreams but there is nobody there to believe in their dreams for them, so please guys, believe."
Asked what her dream is, Nour said she will go to college and then hopes to go to medical school, after which she would like to join Doctors without Borders. "I'm going to take my degree and go around the world, to places where doctors are needed because I experienced what it means to be in a place where there's a lack of basic things that could save lives."
Country School students took Nour's message and the message from the UNICEF video to heart. "All of these values ... I mean, the numbers that you saw up there are huge," said John R., a 7th Grader, referring to the statistics cited by UNICEF. "These aren't just numbers, they're people, and every one of them has a life like you! The only difference is something that they have no choice in – they have to live in constant fear for their lives. And I guess that just really stood out to me."
Bina F., a 7th Grader, greets Nour to thank her for visiting campus and sharing her story.
During a Q & A session, Nour was asked how The Country School community can support the UNICEF Club. For starters, Nour said she hopes to bring a Water Walk to campus soon, adding, "We would love to see everyone there." (Stay tuned for details.)
But there is more students can do. "Just believe in them," she said, referring to children who are struggling or in crisis. "And maybe just post one post on social media to support them. Anything you think will help change something. All together, we can change something."
For more information on the Hillhouse UNICEF Club, go to:
Facebook: @Unicef Children First
Nour, Ahmed, and the UNICEF Club came to The Country School through our connection with IRIS, the refugee resettlement agency in New Haven. For the last two years, Country School families have donated new and gently used winter clothing to IRIS during their winter clothing drive. Earlier this year, Mohamed Hamou, a 7th Grader from Old Lyme whose family was also resettled through IRIS and is also originally from Syria, visited campus to speak with students on IDEA Day. His audience was so inspired by his story that a whole team from The Country School registered to run in the IRIS Run for Refugees 5K in February. During the race, Liz Lightfoot '77, P '05, '07, '08, '12, Alumni Relations director and an IRIS volunteer, ran alongside Nour and learned about her newly established UNICEF Club.
"It felt like a perfect opportunity to bring together the work we are doing with Elmore Leadership at The Country School and Nour's remarkable passion and commitment to supporting children in crisis across the globe," Liz said. "At The Country School, our mission says we 'nurture every student’s unique role in the community, empowering each to serve the common good.' We also facilitate 'an understanding of the world through deliberate programs and experiences that encourage students to embrace differences, explore new perspectives, and find common ground in a multicultural world.' Who does that better than Nour?"
Liz also praised Nour's energy, as she balances multiple extracurricular projects with her intense academic load at Hillhouse, where she was recently named Student of the Month and maintains a top GPA. In addition to her work with UNICEF, Nour is captain of the Math Team and an intern at a Yale lab where she researches ovarian cancer (she was one of a small number of high school students from across the globe admitted into Yale's Discovery to Cure program last summer, an undertaking she was invited to continue during the school year). She also spends an enormous amount of time volunteering, logging 200 hours of community service last year. Recently she was one of the featured speakers at a vigil to remember the victims of the horrific shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and last summer she spoke at New Haven's World Refugee Day, sharing the dais with politicians and community leaders and addressing an audience numbering in the hundreds — major accomplishments for someone who only started speaking English two and a half years ago.
Nour's dogged efforts to learn English are another reason she was a perfect choice to deliver an Elmore Leadership speech. One of The Country School's core values is resilience, the notion that, in order to improve, a student must take risks, persevere, and learn from mistakes. A few weeks ago Nour was the subject of an article in the New Haven Independent about "a new wave of New Haven high school students seeking to earn a state-sanctioned 'seal of biliteracy” (read the article here). Here is Nour from the Independent:
Coming to America was not an easy journey, and to start learning English was not very easy. I just started to speak a lot. People sometimes didn’t understand me, but it’s okay. Even if they are making fun of you today, tomorrow will change. Tomorrow, you will say it properly.
Nour, we cannot wait to see what you do tomorrow! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and passion with us today.
Named for long-time Country School trustee Bill Elmore, the school-wide Elmore Leadership Program is designed to develop students into civic-minded citizens who will become tomorrow’s leaders, practicing our Country School core values of kindness, respect, and responsibility. Learn more at
Some of the Country School participants at the IRIS Run for Refugees.