Building bridges

UB alum '12 Ayla Abiad gives back to the refugee and immigrant community

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After the ongoing Syrian civil war began earlier this decade, UB alum Ayla Abiad wasn’t sure how to help.

Born in Syria, she had no control in going back home.

She felt handcuffed.

Abiad began volunteering at Buffalo’s International Institute and began seeing Syrian families coming into the resettlement agency. She began introducing herself to families and not long after started receiving messages asking for help.

Today, Abiad has answered the call for help with a non-profit foundation, which runs thanks to volunteers donating their time and money.

“With everyone coming together, that’s why I believe Buffalo is a great place,” Abiad said. “Everyone wants to help and it’s a great place for newcomers and for families here because it’s so friendly, safe and everyone wants to help.”

Abiad helped create the Build a Bridge (BAB) Foundation in 2015. The foundation links a variety of volunteers to refugees and new immigrants who need help understanding mail, financial assistance and filling out job applications.

Abiad came to the U.S. in 2009 on a student visa to pursue higher education. When the civil war started in her home country, her status was held and she stayed in the U.S. post-graduation. After finding an employer to sponsor her green card, she has remained put.

In 2010, she began volunteering at the International Institute of Buffalo.

“Kids, elderly people, they’re like a little bit traumatized because they went through a lot,” Abiad said. “To come here as a refugee –– besides the fact that you fled a war –– you stayed in refugee camps and then you went through screenings. You’re thrown literally in a city where you know nothing, you’re locked in a home and you don’t know how to pay the bills or read the mail. It’s overwhelming.”

For Abiad, she looks to challenge preconceptions of immigrants with events like the seventh annual TEDx conference in Buffalo this past October.

After working with Villa Maria College student LaCherie Reid on a video documentary for the International Institute, Abiad began to consider sharing her story at the conference.

“I wanted to speak up in a nice way and say, ‘Well, I come from a good family, we’re not barbarians, we’re good,’” Abiad said.

“I played piano for eighteen years, I traveled the world, my father is a civil engineer, my husband is a doctor. When my professor told me that and said I should tell my story, tell people what you do with your non-profit and that people should look at us from Syria and third world countries equally.”

Michelle Kearns, developer and instructor in the Digital Media and Communication program at Villa Maria College, helped Abiad with editing drafts of her TEDx talk. Kearns, a former journalist for The Buffalo News, believes Abiad has a fascinating story and is thrilled she was able to tell it.

“I just think she is really charismatic, a really good storyteller, has great insight and it’s not easy to get up on stage to tell a clear idea or a clear story,” Kearns said. “To pull people in, to be compelling, I was riveted. She’s just a natural and it’s a wonderful forum for someone who has a big heart and wants to do good in the community, it was really inspiring.”

Coming to America has also altered Abiad’s preconceptions about its people. Meeting her neighbors in Buffalo has led her to see how welcoming people are in her community.
“I had a neighbor, she welcomed me with cookies and tea. I made friendships here and I was wrong about the Americans,” Abiad said. “I knew Americans through a screen and I didn’t have the one-to-one human interaction, which is very important for you to break that barrier. I think it’s important for people to be aware, though, that we have preconceptions and starting to question them like ‘Where are they coming from?’”
When it comes to her foundation, Abiad said its creation comes from a team of volunteers. During the process of establishing the foundation as a non-profit, everyone from lawyers, IT workers and other skilled people volunteered to help get BAB into motion.

Samer Fallouh, a BAB board member and resident in Dallas, Texas, has known Abiad since childhood and recognizes the passion she has for the foundation.

“When she started getting traction in terms of people not just wanting to volunteer and there was more interest from people who wanted to give money, so that was the trigger needed to make it formal,” Fallouh said.

On top of BAB, Abiad currently works as an architect for Wendel Companies in Williamsville. She hopes the BAB foundation will only grow, with plans to release an app in the near future.

Kearns thinks in today’s time, Abiad’s idea for a phone app to connect immigrants and refugees with volunteers helps simplify the community connection process.

“I can say right now that I’d love to host a family to dinner but the steps I need to take to get there are complicated,” Kearns said. “So this phone app that she has developed I think is genius, getting connected to people that can help them with all different kinds of things.”

As the company maintains a presence in Buffalo, she wishes the foundation can grow beyond U.S. borders.

“I’m testing [the app] on the local level and the numbers of volunteers and refugees are working, so I’m planning on taking it to an international level,” Abiad said.

Benjamin Blanchet is the senior features editor and can be contacted at benjamin.blanchet@ubspectrum.com.