Our Volunteer of the Month: Felice Gordis
A native of Tennessee, Felice Gordis grew up in a European immigrant refugee family. As an adult she taught Developmental Psychology at the college level at several institutions throughout the country, finally settling in the Albany area to be closer to her grandchildren.
In 2017, Felice started tutoring English to a Syrian widow with 6 children, ages 12 through early 20’s. Felice quickly realized that in addition to language lessons, there were other ways she could help the family to acclimate and thrive in the United States. She began expanding her role to one of assisting the family in navigating the structures of American institutions. She also researched options, coordinated with a local dentist and found resources in the community to provide orthodontal services for two Syrian refugee children.
Felice has found her involvement with NY4SR to be very fulfilling. She describes the mother she works with as “kind, lively and outgoing” and the whole family to be “lovely and very interesting”. For Felice, helping others seems to come naturally. As she explains simply, “I look for resources, when issues come up.” She also finds the commitment and hard work of so many people who answer the call of NY4SR to be inspiring and reassuring.
By Mary Kopczynski.
Ilham AlMahamid, Ph.D.
Dr. AlMahamid is the founder of New York for Syrian Refugees.
Ilham is a scientist with the NYS Department of Health and a faculty member with the School of Public Health at UAlbany. She is a US citizen who migrated from Damascus, Syria in 1984. She studied in France and worked in Berkeley, CA for 14 years before she came to Albany in 2005.
Ilham enjoys bringing people together and lending a hand to those who need it. She considers it a blessing and an honor to help new immigrants and to work with such a beautiful community.
Hajar Alrifai is one of the initial members who assisted in launching the Facebook page of the organization.
Hajar is a student pursuing a Bachelors of Architecture at City College of New York. She hopes to someday use her degree for international humanitarian causes like rebuilding war-torn cities in Syria.
Hajar is proud of her identity as a first generation Syrian-American, and is honored to assist in welcoming Syrian new comers to America and helping them make a new home here.
Omar Alrifai is a first generation Syrian American. He is currently a Junior at UAlbany pursuing a degree in Biology. He hopes to become a doctor, and to use his degree to attend to the medical concerns of people affected by war across the globe. He loves being a part of New York for Syrian Refugees and connecting with new families in the region.
Jo Anne Assini, ESQ
Jo Anne Assini is a volunteer tutor with New York for Syrian Refugees. She is retired and lives with her husband and their four rescue dogs in Schenectady. She has been a children’s librarian, child abuse prosecutor and served as a Family Court Judge for ten years.
Jo Anne feels grateful to be able to work with such kind and generous people. Her favorite Syrian food is fattoush.
Amanda Bailly is a filmmaker from Albany, NY, who is based in Beirut but frequently returns to the Albany area. Her documentary film 8 Borders, 8 Days follows a single mother and her two kids from Syria on their journey to find safety in Germany. She has shown the film around the US and Europe, and speaks publicly about how communities can be welcoming for refugees. She also produces short films for human rights and humanitarian organizations, and has documented stories of refugees around the world. Within New York for Syrian Refugees, her passion is employment and helping refugees build fulfilling careers in their new homes.
Lisa Baranik, Ph.D.
Lisa Baranik is a mentor to a refugee family through New York for Syrian Refugees. She is an Assistant Professor of Management at the University at Albany, SUNY, where she conducts research on refugee vocational experiences. She has visited or lived in Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia. Lisa lives with her husband and daughter in Delmar, NY.
Lisa enjoys sharing her favorite parts of American culture with her refugee family, such as fireworks on the 4th of July, chili, and dramatic stories about the snow in New York. She feels lucky to be friends with a family that is so generous, fun, and accepting of her daughter’s “terrible twos” phase.
Anna Campas is a retired Greek-American architect who has embraced literacy for immigrants as a primary volunteer challenge. Born in the United States, she recalls her mother’s struggles in this country as a Greek immigrant in learning the English language.
Having spent several years in the Albany public schools as an ESL volunteer teacher, Anna embarked on a 2 week mission to Athens, Greece in January 2017 to teach Greek and English to Syrian refugees at a settlement house. The experience caused her to re-examine and re-shuffle her values and way of life.
Anna tutored two of the area Syrian mothers in 2017-18 while teaching English to young refugee children at Arbor Hill Elementary School. More recently, she has taken on the role of bicycle donation coordinator. Working with Albany Bike Rescue, she is able to procure fully functioning children’s bikes at no cost, and adult bikes for a very low fee. She is working with Trinity Alliance to determine how New York for Syrian Refugees can take advantage of a voucher program for free adult bicycles for refugees.
Nina Carr grew up in the Saratoga area and now resides in Colonie with her husband and two children. Being a Caucasian mother to an African-American daughter and a biracial son has really amplified her need for her actions to reflect her thoughts, and to think about the kind of world that she wants her children to live in. She has, since high school, been involved in the LGBTQIA community, and was the co-chair of the gay/straight alliance during her senior year at Siena College. She is a huge reader and has a library in her home. She also works from home as a seamstress. Nina has worked with two families in the Syrian and Iraqi communities previously tutoring English, and continues to work with another family on English language skills. She also provides transportation to medical appointments and other appointments on an as-needed basis.
Jan Coles, MBA
Jan Coles is an administrator at the NYS Department of Health. Previously, Jan worked as a middle school library aide and an elementary school reading tutor. Jan is a volunteer tutor with New York for Syrian Refugees. She feels especially fortunate to have been paired with a Syrian mother who is anxious to learn to read, write and speak English. Their weekly sessions have given both an opportunity to improve their skills at charades, laugh together, and develop a warm friendship.
Michele Davitt is the proud mom of three beautiful young adults and lives locally in Delmar. She is a graduate of Northeastern University and currently works as a Territory Manager for an international company in the local area. Michele has been an active volunteer for many organizations but takes special pride in assisting New York for Syrian Refugees. “It is truly the first time I have felt connected to not only the people I help, but the community at large”.
Michele assists in coordinating donations, fundraising and collaborating to meet the growing needs of the organization. She also sponsors one young woman with no family from Aleppo. What started out as a volunteer experience has created amazing, lifelong friendships!
Azmad Din was one of the initial members who assisted in launching the Facebook page of the organization. He started off personally delivering donated goods and furniture to the Syrian families’ homes.
Azmad just graduated from RPI with a Bachelor’s in Industrial Engineering. He is eager to help out our new families in order to help them become successful, productive members of our community.
Bridget Glasser is global history teacher at Troy High School, holding a bachelor’s degree in world history and master’s degree in education. She truly enjoys working in the inner city with students of diverse backgrounds. She has been happily married for 8 years. She enjoyed traveling with her husband in the early years of their marriage and were fortunate enough to explore many parts of the world. She has a 3 year old daughter and a 1 year old son who fill their hearts with joy every day.
Bridget has been a volunteer with this group since January 2017 and was paired with a lovely family to tutor them in English a few months later. She meets with the family on a weekly basis and typically sits with the mother and children reading books, using flash cards, practicing conversational English, etc. Bridget feels they are beautiful people and incredibly welcoming not only to herself, but also to her entire family. Their children have befriended her own children and as a result her family has gained wonderful friends while helping them learn our language. Bridget considers herself truly fortunate to be a part of this organization – anything she gives is returned many times over.
Nick Glasser is a software engineer and graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he obtained a degree in Computer and Systems Engineering. He is a longtime resident of the Capital District and is happy to give back to the community.
Nick is married to Bridget (see above!) and loves spending time with his family. Although his wife is the English tutor for a local Syrian family, both families have become fast friends and their children regularly play together.
Nick is responsible for running this website and addressing any technical needs for New York for Syrian Refugees.
Felice, who has a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology, retired from teaching at the college level, and moved to Albany about eight years ago to be near her grandchildren. She herself grew up in an immigrant refugee home, although as a child, she did not understand how to account for the cultural and life style differences between her home and those of her schoolmates and neighbors. She began her volunteering with New York for Syrian Refugees by tutoring one of the families in English, but quickly realized that mediating other contact points with American culture was just as urgent a need for the family. She has found that getting to know the members of the family has been an enriching and meaningful personal experience.
Shipra Iyer, MPH
Shipra is originally from India but has resided in US for the past 15 years. She lives in Guilderland with her husband and 2 daughters. Shipra has recently completed her Masters in Public Health Policy management and started working for the NY State Medicaid program.
Majd immigrated to the US in 1999 from Jordan. Being from the Levant area and fluent in both Arabic and English, she feels very fortunate to have the ability to help out the new Syrian families settle into their new home.
Majd went to NYU for her graduate studies in Clinical Nutrition and has previously worked at the Harvard School of Public Health. A few years ago she decided to pursue her passion for arts and textile design and currently owns a fabric shop. She currently resides in Clifton Park with her husband and 3 children.
David is an engineer in Schenectady and loves to travel and learn about other cultures. He realized he enjoyed teaching and mentoring younger people a few years ago, and has put those skills and creativity to use as a volunteer tutor. David’s focus has been with the young men in the refugee community, who have kept him energized with their enthusiasm to improve their English and learn more about American culture and history.
Ellen is an English tutor for New York for Syrian Refuges. During her time with this organization she has enjoyed learning about Arabic cultures and traditions, and feels inspired by the love, hard work, generosity, and positive attitudes of the families she helps. She is grateful to be a part of an amazing group of hard working volunteers. Ellen is passionate about helping others in times of stress and uncertainty. She is a Physician Assistant pursuing a career in Emergency Medicine.
Mary is a volunteer tutor with New York for Syrian Refugees.
Mary is a graduate of SUNY Delhi and currently works in logistics at General Electric. She lives in Scotia with her husband Andrew, their rescue dog Roxie and their cat Rocky. Andrew, as well as the couple’s daughter Laura, also volunteers with New York for Syrian Refugees.
Mary has found tutoring to be a humbling and thoroughly enriching experience. She values the friendships she has developed while participating in the organization and the fact that she is constantly learning new things along the way.
Laya Lakkaraju, MPH
Laya L is passionate about community health and has a Master’s in Public Health from SUNY Albany. She is currently working with the New York State Department of Health on a Community Chronic Disease Prevention Project. Before living and working in Albany, NY, she lived in the suburbs of Mumbai, India most of her life with her parents and sister.
She has the best time volunteering and tutoring with New York for Syrian Refugees. The kids in the family that she works with make her take note of the little joys in life and help her be more silly and happy!
She hopes to work with these families in the near future as she herself gets acclimated to american culture and hopes to find ways to make a few lifelong friends along the way!
Taiymoor Naqi works for one of the state’s health information exchanges, focusing his efforts on regulatory compliance. He has a law degree from the University at Buffalo and an MBA from the University at Albany. A long time member of the Albany Muslim community, Taiymoor is proud to serve as a member of the volunteer group. Inspired by the difficulties they have faced, and the resilience they have shown, Taiymoor seeks to make a positive impact In the lives of our local Syrian families. He currently resides in Bethlehem. He enjoys spending time with family, cheering for his Spurs, and Snapchatting his cat Noori.
Maram Nashar was born in Lebanon. Maram works with New York Life as a financial advisor and enjoys very much helping her clients better their future.
Maram has two children, a son who is a senior and ready for his first year of college and a daughter who is a freshman in high school.
Maram experienced war first hand in her mother country and feels the tragedy and suffering the war causes. She is committed to help the refugee families in anyway she can.
Alaa Oweja, MD
Alaa is a Syrian doctor with a Masters in Internal Medicine from the University of Aleppo.
Alaa worked as a volunteer in her city Aleppo for about a year. She knows that even if you help just a little, you will make a difference. Alaa loves to help the new comers and is a great asset for she speaks Arabic and English. Before she came here, Alaa experienced the war in her city Aleppo; she understands very well how much support these families need. She is so grateful to be part of this group.
Margaret Ross, MPH
Margaret Ross lives in Niskayuna with her husband and two young-adult children. She has a master’s degree in public health nursing and works as a Registered Nurse at the Hospice Inn in Albany. She became involved with New York for Syrian Refugees group after meeting Dr. Ilham AlMahamid at the hospital while taking care of one of the Syrian refugees. She is a volunteer tutor for an amazing Syrian mother who just arrived with her family a few months ago. She considers it an honor and privilege to know such wonderful people!
Trained as a clinical social worker, Julie’s career included work with families and children in a wide variety of settings. Julie also worked as Youth Orchestra Manager, the senior orchestra of ESYO., Inc, an organization of graded instrumental ensembles in which both of her (now adult) children participated.
After some years of retirement, she was looking for volunteer work to fit her interests. In March, after seeing Amanda Bailly‘s film 8Borders8Days, she immediately contacted New York for Syrian Refugees and began tutoring a mother of five from Syria shortly thereafter. She and the Mom get together weekly, reading and speaking English.
At home, her interests include reading, exercise, and music. With her children living in Pittsburgh and Montreal, she and her husband travel to visit them often. Formerly an amateur violinist, she is now struggling as a beginning pianist. With this undertaking, she is very empathetic with those in the process of learning a new language!
Hassan Shawa, MD
Dr. Hassan Shawa is a Syrian endocrinologist at Albany Medical Center. Dr. Shawa was one of the first community members who rolled up their sleeves and started helping the new families in many aspects of their lives, whether it was a matter of health, housing, education, or civic activities. Dr. Shawa is a great asset to the Syrian families and to our community at large. He is married and has two beautiful children and a wife who is as committed to our community as her husband.
Rebekah Wolanski is a student at Hudson Valley Community College currently pursuing her bachelor’s in English. She is a long time resident of Albany, and a long time lover of community service.
Rebekah enjoys being a part of New York for Syrian Refugees, as it has given her the opportunity to meet extraordinary people of all cultures, as well as develop friendships with people she may never have met otherwise.