Math teacher from Lombard works to help Syrian refugees in Greece
Aysha Shedbalkar has been teaching math at West Leyden High School for 18 years.
But the Lombard woman's service to others goes far beyond the classroom. She has been volunteering for years to help those in need in places as varied as Tanzania, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Greece.
Shedbalkar's interest in volunteerism began when she was in high school and continued through college. Once she established a career and saved money for travel, she began working with kids at schools and orphanages.
But she says her most recent trip changed her life.
Shedbalkar began traveling to Thessaloniki, Greece, in 2016 at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. The United Nations has identified 13.5 million refugees needing assistance as a result of the Syrian Civil War.
She since has returned to Greece to help for two more summers and during school breaks.
She says she was compelled to help after seeing photos of a toddler who drowned attempting to flee Syria.
"I felt like I could not just sit back and continue living this life of privilege while these people just want safety, security and stability," Shedbalkar says.
Working with Team Humanity at a camp in Oreokastro, Greece, Shedbalkar helped distribute food and clothing to almost 2,000 refugees.
Volunteers helped with anything the refugees needed, she says, so each day was different. On some they drove refugees to run errands; on others they searched the warehouse for specific items such as strollers or blankets.
Shedbalkar also interviewed refugees and posted on Instagram to raise worldwide awareness.
"I feel like sometimes we get fatigued by the media and think this doesn't really affect us," she says. "I wanted to show people who didn't know how to help that they could donate."
Shedbalkar has raised awareness and encouraged many of her friends to get involved. Among them is a high school pal, Sarah Kahn, who also volunteered in Greece.
"There is so much work to be done," Kahn says. "I never realized the amount of work needed behind the scenes."
Kahn calls Shedbalkar her "soul buddy," and says she's glad to share the experiences with her. They keep each other motivated.
"Both of us would get into our own heads at different times, so we were able to lift each other up if we hit a low," Kahn says.
Shedbalkar says the challenges are exactly why she keeps volunteering. Her first time in Greece lasted two months, but after being home for three days, she went back for two more weeks.
She says she felt extremely connected to the camp and the refugees, and kept in touch when possible.
"I wanted them to forget about where they were," Shedbalkar says. "I'm there to try and ease their pain."
Her connection did not end when she returned home. She met a Syrian volunteer living in the camp, Rezan AlHasan Al Ibrahimand, and the couple married in March. But it was far from easy.
In 2018, the Supreme Court upheld a version of President Donald Trump's 2017 travel ban. As a result, her husband cannot come to America.
Instead, they got a marriage license in Denmark and had a ceremony in Sweden, where many members of his family live. Shedbalkar says many of her friends and family members flew from Chicago to celebrate.
Al Ibrahimand currently lives and works in the Netherlands, and Shedbalkar flies to see him whenever she can.
"It requires a lot of positive thinking," she says. "We are extremely grateful that we have the opportunity to see each other. But I hope the policies change."
Kahn says it's painful to see her friend separated from her husband.
"As someone who loves both of them dearly, it's very difficult to see," Kahn says. "It's even harder to see when nothing was done wrong. But she is so resilient."
Shedbalkar's volunteer experiences translate into her teaching as she shares what she learns and sees at the refugee camps.
"It's not just math," she says. "I'm teaching and showing them these life skills. It's humbling when you see how little people have and how grateful they still are."
Despite how often she travels and volunteers, Shedbalkar says she never feels as if she's done enough.
"There are some things that you want to do for them, but you can't," she says. "You want to be everything for them, but you have to pick and choose the things you can actually help with."
Shedbalkar says it's always difficult to leave the camps, which motivates her to do even more. With friends like Kahn by her side, she is able to push herself.
"We thrive off each other's desire to do better," Kahn says.