June 3, 2024

When Bilal Azzam and Tala Jazairi, seniors in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, arrived to campus, they recognized an opportunity to take advantage of the resources provided by Carolina as students and children of refugees. 

This led to the creation of the nonprofit, Middle East Refugee Aid (MERA) in 2022. This year, they created MERA as a student organization to take advantage of the resources on campus. 

Students standing in front of Wilson Library

The MERA Student group leadership team. From left to right: Adam Sherif, Aabia Saeed, Tala Jazairi, Salma Hakam and Bilal Azzam.

Gillings School student Salma Hakam and UNC College of Arts and Sciences students Aabia Saeed and Adam Sherif joined Azzam and Jazairi as leaders of the organization. 

“We were motivated to make a difference and attend to the Middle Eastern and refugee population so commonly overlooked in our current health care systems,” says Hakam. 

The mission of MERA is to provide equitable access to medical and dental aid for Middle Eastern refugees, both locally and abroad, while promoting sustainable solutions through health literacy and education all while upholding fundamental human rights. 

They have collaborated with other student organizations on campus such as the Arab student organization and the Muslim student organization. During the month of Ramadan, they co-sponsored two iftars – meals eaten by Muslims at sunset to break their fast during Ramadan. 

One iftar was in collaboration with the Minority Student Caucus and the Gillings School. They also collaborated with a community interfaith organization, Marian Cheek Jackson center and the Town of Chapel Hill to sponsor another iftar. 

The group has made an impact in North Carolina by holding health fairs and offering screenings and education for the state’s refugee population. Looking ahead, they plan to host more health fairs, a dental bus, a health professional panel and an interactive literacy event for children. 

But their ambitions extend far beyond the local and state community. MERA facilitated an educational dental hygiene flyer, written in both English and Arabic, to children in refugee camp schools in Palestine and Jordan. MERA also funded the travel and service of their humanitarian team to travel to Cairo, Egypt where convoys that go into Gaza are loaded with materials and aid. 

MERA has raised more than $30,000 and counting, contributing to health materials and food relief packages that were distributed to the refugees of Palestine and those in Gaza. 

The students’ bold initiative recently earned MERA a Robert E. Bryan Public Service Award from the Carolina Center of Public Service, for their outstanding contributions to the campus and broader communities. 

MERA’s leadership invite anyone to join their cause by following @mera.nonprofit on Instagram and signing up at meranonprofit.org to volunteer or donate. 

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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