First published in the Aug. 11 print issue of the San Marino Tribune
When Gianna Karkafi set out to conduct research for a Girl Scout project, little did she know the process would include an investigation of her family’s roots.
Karkafi, a senior at San Marino High School and active Scout, designed her Gold Award project around her appreciation for Lebanon — her parents’ country of origin which dovetailed into the creation of the Middle East Club on campus.
“My Gold Award project was ‘Books for Lebanon.’ Lebanon is currently and has been going through a financial crisis sparked by the revolution, COVID-19, and the Beirut explosion,” Karkafi said. “This has led to Lebanese currency devaluing by 20 times and has caused incredibly large inflation, hurting the people whose income comes from Lebanon. I decided to center my Gold Award around providing educational materials for underprivileged students in Lebanon, raising money to donate notebooks, workbooks and writing utensils to students at an underfunded grade school in Batroun, which is a coastal city in Lebanon.”
The explosion Karkafi is referring to occurred on Aug. 4, 2020, when a large amount of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the Port of Beirut in the capital city of Lebanon exploded. Karkafi has relatives and friends who were affected by the explosion.
The catastrophe caused more than 200 deaths, 7,000 injuries and $15 billion in property damage. It also left an estimated 300,000 residents homeless.
“This was important to me because I believe that everyone deserves a quality education, no matter how much money or resources you have,” Karkafi said. “However, after seeing the news circulating in America about Middle Eastern countries, I decided that I wanted to do more in my community to make a change. I noticed that people only thought of the Arab world as a ‘war zone’ and didn’t know much about the countries and cultures themselves. This bothered me, as I know that the region is more than just what is shown on the news. I decided to start the Middle East Club to educate students at my school on the rich cultures of the region in order to bring a more holistic view to the student body.”
Karkafi filed all of the necessary paperwork during the first semester of her junior year and by the time the 2021-22 school year was ending, the Middle East Club had been born.
“I pursued this initiative through presentations to our members, focused on the cultures and backgrounds of various Middle Eastern countries,” Karkafi said. “Another goal of this club is to contribute to helping underprivileged Middle Eastern students both in America and in their countries of origin. With this goal in mind, I held a book drive through the club, collecting used and new books, all in good condition, from the student body of San Marino High School. We donated these books to the International Rescue Committee, an organization based in Los Angeles which provides educational resources for Middle Eastern refugee students. I wanted to expand this initiative, so I decided to collect French books from those who had them and take these to Lebanon with me over the summer to donate to Collège St. Elie Batroun, the same school I donated educational materials to.”
As the last part of her Gold Award project, Karkafi held an online presentation about the crises that are currently plaguing Lebanon and how people can help.
“People tuned in from America, Lebanon and Dubai, and I’m glad I was able to reach such a global audience,” she said. “In the future, I would like to continue educating my peers on Arab culture and helping underprivileged Middle Easterners through the Middle East Club. This starts with the implementation of the tutoring program next semester.”
The tutoring program involves working in coordination with the Youth Exchange Program of Paper Airplanes, where members of the club will be matched with a Middle Eastern student and will be teaching the student English in order to ensure the student’s success in their education and career in America.
The Youth Exchange Program of Paper Airplanes is an organization where tutors meet with their student over Zoom once a week to provide them with the English skills and resources they need to pass the Duolingo English exam and succeed in their educational and career aspirations in English-speaking countries. Karkafi and some of her fellow Middle East Club members have completed the training and are currently working with students.
“I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to make some change in people’s lives as well as in the mindset of my peers,” Karkafi said. “I look forward to continuing these initiatives in the future.”
Karkafi is the daughter of Grace Wehbeh and Robert Karkafi. She has two brothers; Jeremy, a sophomore at San Marino High School and Jonathan, who graduated from SMHS in 2021 and is currently a sophomore at Cal Poly Pomona.
She is a four-year member of San Marino High School’s basketball program and was named captain for her senior year. She is also involved in other clubs, including the Medical Youth Club of San Marino, the Red Cross Club, Leo Club and the California Scholarship Federation. Away from school, she volunteers at Huntington Hospital and for International Youth Tobacco Control, a club that has roots in the San Marino community.
When she gets to college, Karkafi hopes to major in neuroscience on a pre-med track. She has her sights set on becoming a neurosurgeon and is also considering a career as a pediatric neurologist.