For second year, Staples' students help to raise funds for Middle Eastern nation in crisis

Photo of Justin Papp

WESTPORT — Kion Bruno remembers traveling to Iran when he was 8.

What stuck out most to the Westport resident, even at that young age, was the vibrant social life his extended family and family friends maintained.

“The culture shock was the amount of parties there were. We were having these huge family reunions and every night it would just be a party with 80 family members, cooking these huge Persian meals,” said Bruno, the son of a first-generation Iranian-American mother and now a 17-year-old Staples High School senior.

His trip to visit his family still in Iran and interactions in Connecticut with members of the local Middle Eastern community are two reasons that Bruno decided to found the Building Bridges Club in his junior year. But he had other reasons for starting the club that were less positive.

“The club focuses on combatting xenophobia against Middle Easterners,” Bruno explained. “This was kind of an issue that really connected with me because I had seen how false portrayals of these people were.”

Bruno, who lives on the same block in Westport as a Pakistani businessman and a Palestinian doctor, and through his mother has met and spent time with many local Iranian-Americans, knew first hand that divisive rhetoric spread in the news, through social media and word-of-mouth depicting people from the Middle East as “terrorists” or a threat to America was patently untrue.

So Bruno started the club and began reaching out to his friends. At first, as is the case with any new club, Bruno said they were slow to come. But by the end of its first year, the Building Bridges Club had seen 60 distinct Staples students and could expect anywhere between 20 and 30 in attendance at a given meeting.

The students came for a reason. Through local connections and his own outreach, Bruno was able to schedule speakers and Skype meetings with a Syrian refugee, a Palestinian farmer, two Israel Defense Forces soldiers and a group of Iranian teenagers in Tehran.

“One of the things we try to focus on are similarities. All the time you see in the media ‘They’re different, they’re bad,’” Bruno said. “They are just like us. These Iranian teens go to school, they go out, they’re us. It’s just their differences that are being shown to people.”

Bruno and his peers would have conversations with these people from around the world and then discuss. But the group did much more than just converse. In 2017, Bruno and the club organized a fundraiser for Syrian refugees, with proceeds going to nonprofits the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants and Nu Day Syria. A panel discussion followed with First Selectman Jim Marpe, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., and members of the local Syrian community. More than $6,000 were raised.

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This year, Bruno and his classmate shifted their gaze to Yemen, where arguably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis has been playing out for more than three years.

“This conflict has triggered one of the worst humanitarian emergencies maybe in the last 20 years. There are about 22 million people in urgent need of help, including 11 million children,” said Soha Ellaithy, senior director on Save the Children’s Strategic Foundation Partnerships Team who for seven years headed the nonprofit Gulf Office in the United Arab Emirates. She recently moved to Save the Children’s Fairfield office and will be one of the speakers at the Building Bridges Club’s May 5 fundraiser, in Branson Hall at Christ and Holy Trinity Church, at 4 p.m.

“The kinds of needs we’re seeing on the ground are hunger, no access to clean water, which has triggered crisis of infectious diseases, cholera, diarrhea -- diseases killing young children. There’s very little access to health care as well,” Ellaithy said.

Also speaking will be Muhammad Aziz of the Yale MacMillan Center Council of Islamic Studies. Personalized messages from U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-4, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and Staples High School graduate Tyler Hicks will be played. A slideshow of Hicks’ photos on the ground in Yemen will also be shown, as will a Frontline documentary on the conflict.

Both Ellaithy and Bruno hope that the fundraiser will help raise awareness about a conflict that many say has been underreported.

“The conflict in Yemen is not necessarily in the news every day. I think this is an opportunity to let people know what’s happening, especially to the children in Yemen,” said Ellaithy. All proceeds will go to Save the Children.

“if we can do anything it’s so worth it,” Bruno said.; @justnijpapp1; 203-842-2586