MARION — Nicole Glanz, a 17-year-old senior at Linn-Mar High School, describes her correspondence with a Syrian girl as “eye-opening.”
For almost a year, David Swaney’s students at Linn-Mar have been sending letters to teenage Syrians at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Students sent their final letters the week of Jan. 11.
“When Mr. Swaney first told us that we were going to get pen pals, we kind of just assumed that we were helping them and that we wouldn’t really have much in common with them and didn’t know what to talk about,” Glanz said. “As we kept sending more and more letters, it turned out that my pen pal, she actually wanted to be an engineer just like I do, and we had a lot in common with them.”
Glanz was one of 10 students who took part in the pen pal program. Nine were enrolled in Swaney’s AP Government class last year; one is still enrolled.
Every two weeks, the Linn-Mar students wrote to the refugees, and every other week they received letters, Swaney said. In the letters, students discussed subjects including siblings, hobbies, sports and their goals.
Swaney has a connection to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, headquartered in Geneva, and that’s how he learned about the pen pal opportunity.
In the beginning, the refugees sent handwritten letters along with photographs of themselves via a secure website, Swaney said.
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“They are in a camp and they’re trying to learn English, in the hopes that if they get out of the camp, they’ll wind up somewhere where they’ll have to speak English, whether it’s Europe or the United States,” he said.
Aaron Jones, a 17-year-old senior from Marion, had two pen pals through the program. His original pen pal was able to leave the camp, Jones said.
“It’s a really cool experience because it’s not every day where you get to talk to someone across the world from you who has a totally different culture,” Jones said. “Doing that, you find a lot about them and a lot about how everyone really is similar.
“If you look hard enough you can always find something that is relatable between the two of you.”
In the end, many of the pen pals agreed to stay in touch through Facebook or Instagram, Swaney said.