Interview with Praveena Tharmathas and Yasmin Valiallah, founders of Student Aid Drop (a URI Cooperation Circle in Sofia, Bulgaria), and Sally Mahé, Senior Consultant URI.
Sally: Thank you, Praveena and Yasmin, for this interview. It’s a real joy to be speaking with you about Student Aid Drop and explore what motivates your work and where your leadership comes from. Student Aid Drop, an NGO and Cooperation Circle with URI, serves refugees in places where refugee needs are greatest. Please tell me how it all started.
Yasmin and Praveena: It was the beginning of the Christmas holidays in 2015. The refugee crisis was at its peak. Live videos of people leaving their homes, suffering, and dying en route as refugees were so hard to watch. We both felt pain and frustration not knowing what to do. We started googling, looking for ways we could get involved. Yasmin found URI and connected with the URI Europe regional office. Praveena contacted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and discovered there were refugee camps in Sofia. We realized we could do something for the refugees in the city we were in!
Praveena called Yasmin and said, “Let’s do something!” Let’s collect items and deliver them to the refugee camp here in Sofia. That was four years ago. We were 19 years old. We were both from the UK studying in Sofia, Bulgaria. Praveena was in medicine, Yasmin in dentistry. Our first idea was to collect necessities and distribute them to the people in the local camp. We thought of the name Student Aid Drop. Yasmin designed the logo. We never thought of how far it would go. We didn’t think of ourselves as leaders. We were two friends who wanted to do something. It was pre-clinical time at school. Our days were filled with study. We felt getting involved would be a needed break from intense school work. We felt it was the right thing to do – it just all came together!
Currently, Student Aid Drop is managed by a core group of five women – all medical students. We run Go Fund Me campaigns for specific refugee needs and organize local fundraising events. Collections include food, sanitary products for women and men, toys, and clothes, among other necessities. Student Aid Drop has visited and contributed items to camps in Sofia, Thessaloniki, and Samos.
We are grateful to Angelina Vladikova, URI staff coordinator in Sofia, who listens to us, helps us integrate efforts locally, manages language barriers, and gives us kind and wise support in the ups and downs of the work.
I would love to know more about your stories – is there something memorable in your life experiences (something that makes you who you are today) that might inspire others?
Yasmin: I was involved in conflict as a child. As I grew up I realized I wanted to avoid conflict, but my upbringing also helped me be aware and take notice of conflict among people around me and in the world. When I see injustice, it hits me hard. I know if there was connection and caring among people, we wouldn’t have the problems we do - some people with so much and some people with so little. Most people just go around not knowing, not seeing the injustice.
Praveena: I was born in Sri Lanka where there was Civil War. My family moved to the UK when I was seven. When I was a young teenager, my Dad took me to protests; for example, protesting genocide in Sri Lanka or to collect donations for kids suffering from the wars there. When other families in the UK went on vacations to Spain and other “cool” places, I felt embarrassed that our family went places to participate in political actions. At that time I thought my family was “so uncool.” Looking back, I saw that somewhere along the way I realized that the children in Sri Lanka could be me. I’m thankful for the humanitarian spirit of my Dad.
For both of us, growing up in an immigrant household helped make us who we are. We were always being reminded of the blessings we had. I remember sometimes feeling so bad at mealtimes. We were reminded that we had so much while others like us had so little. We felt obligations of being immigrants and that also helped us identify with refugee families forced to leave their homeland.
Neither of us started out with an intention to lead a thriving NGO. We just wanted to do something that could help refugees. We knew that we would not do everything right; but we trusted ourselves to understand people’s needs and to put ourselves in their shoes.
Please tell me about an experience where you saw yourselves as leaders. What qualities did you bring to the situation?
As Student Aid Drop grew and demanded more attention and responsible management, we knew we had to take the time needed to work out problems as they came up. We communicate well with each other and with the other volunteers. We take time to listen to each other and try to understand different perspectives. Often, we use Instagram to take polls among our constituents to ask them for their response to issues that need attention. We have different skill sets and divide responsibilities so that jobs are distributed logically and fairly.
Yasmin: Praveena does the really difficult stuff – she makes the ultimate decisions.
Was there an experience that stands out for you when your leadership was called into action?
Yes, something came up unexpectedly. One of our best fundraisers is a local football match. Over 20 teams play with about 150 players in all. Players can get very passionate in the game of course, but one player kept treating others with disrespect, lots of profanity, etc. Praveena had to tell him that his disrespectful behavior was not allowed and then remove him from the game. You know, as women, men often ignore us and don’t respect us. Praveena had to be fierce and firm to take control of the situation that could have upset the whole event. She conveyed her authority and responsibility effectively by taking him out of the game and saying, “You will respect me and my team.”
What keeps you going? How would you describe an “inner voice” or life-giving spirit - something that you reach for or practice when the going gets hard or you feel off-track?
Praveena: Spiritual life has changed for me over the years. I believe in God but I don’t think there is one right way. I’m not tied down to one religion but I go to God when I feel like giving up. I trust I will receive the strength and power that I need. I practice meditation and sometimes realize that the best response is to stop and do nothing. Put trust in a higher power.
Also, it helps that I give people more understanding and respect now. I understand that we can never really know what’s going on inside another person. I can also spot “red flags” in my own feelings and notice that I’m going into a “dip” before going really low. Therapy has helped me to understand myself in more logical ways and that gives me balanced energy which transfers into the work. I’ve learned a lot from the book The New Earth by Eckhart Tollé.
Yasmin: My faith in God fluctuates. It’s when things are not going well that I hear myself saying, “Oh God, who can I turn to now.” My spirituality changes constantly. I see how easy it is to block out a higher power.
What words do you have for others who want to grow as leaders?
Know and accept that you will get unmotivated at times and feel like, “Is what I’m doing really helping anyone?” We know now that what feels like just a drop is not just a drop - it is a drop that creates ripples.
Don’t just keep doing things. Take breaks. Give action a rest. Give yourself a healthy working environment by caring for yourself. If we want to see bigger change, we need to pay attention to the changes needed within us. Sometimes the biggest change we can see is the positive change within ourselves. Don’t be harsh on yourself. Understand that if a person says you are amazing, receive their compliment and know that “amazing” includes being flawed.
We see that little things mean a lot. A smile can be such a huge thing. When we reflect, we notice what has meaning for us and makes us feel good. At a recent holiday event, we saw moms and kids from refugee camps just relaxing and having fun together. Kids running around, moms cooking, making gingerbread decorations. They were really getting into it! These kinds of quality moments mean so much.
Is there anything else you would like to share about what you are learning?
When you start a project, know that there are many NGOs cheering you on. We now support other like-minded NGOs and meet so many great people. We build links and see how we can connect and help each other. We learned about an NGO on Instagram, March of Hope. They are making a documentary film about people giving service from Britain to Berlin. They decided to include Student Aid Drop in the film. Collaborating is really working! We just had a wonderful Christmas program that three NGOs in Sofia hosted together: Student Aid Drop, The Red Cross, and The Refugee Program of Sofia. Together, our drops are turning into ripples!
Thank you so much for your enduring spirit and your insights about leadership. May the ripples flow! May everyone participating in Student Aid Drop and all the people you serve fulfill your aspirations and live in peace, justice, and healing.
Read the full "Inner Voice of Leadership" series.