This daughter of refugees from Iran is helping refugees in California

Published date20 September 2022
Publication titleIsrael National News (Israel)
Her father and grandparents on both sides fled Iran. (Her mother was born in the United States.)

"They talked about the sense of powerlessness that fleeing created for them," Sienna said.

That vulnerability resonated with Sienna, and she decided early on that she wanted to help refugees undergoing similar experiences. When it came time to choose a project for her bat mitzvah, she worked with the Los Angeles-based Jewish community IKAR to help collect and send musical instruments to Syrian refugees in refugee camps in Greece.

Myriad volunteer efforts followed. Then, after she began high school, Sienna was inspired to launch her own project to help new refugees adjust to life in Southern California, offering services including learning English and obtaining essential items such as clothes, toiletries and school supplies.

Since Sienna and a classmate, Lily Sind, launched the Refugee Empowerment Project in 2020, they've helped over 1,000 refugees and recruited 120 teen and adult volunteers along the way.

Sienna, now 18 and in her senior year of high school, was recently recognized for her efforts and named one of the recipients of the 2022 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. The $36,000 award is given annually by the Helen Diller Family Foundation to up to 15 extraordinary teenagers who exemplify the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world. The recipients can choose to use the funds toward their education or further their project, or both.

With more than 82 million people around the world displaced by wars and disasters in countries such as Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela, according to the International Rescue Committee, Sienna says helping this population is critical.

"With Ukraine, that's a really pressing refugee crisis that is on the news, and everyone's talking about it, but there have also been other refugee crises that are still going on and are overlooked," she said.

Some 80,000 Jews lived in Iran during the 1970s. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power and established the fundamentalist Islamic state that persists to this day. Amid the revolution, religious minorities including Jews had their freedoms curtailed, and some prominent Jews were executed. Today, an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Jews remain in the country.

Many of those who fled ended up in Los Angeles.

"My grandparents at our Shabbat dinners on Fridays would talk about stories from Iran and show me pictures, and I always had this desire to connect with that, but I also knew that I...

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