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Incoming student receives $36,000 award for leading refugee-aid organization

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Incoming student and San Diego native John Finkelman ’23 was awarded one of 15 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards of $36,000 and named one of the 25 most remarkable teens of San Diego for his creation of the Equal Voice Initiative (EVI), an organization that offers refugees resources like food, clothing and education to help protect them from economic hardship.

After getting involved in the Red Cross in 2018 with projects like organizing spreadsheets to reach out to different refugee-service and veteran organizations, Finkelman was selected to be the youth chair for his department and led monthly service projects, created his own committee and started numerous programs. Still, he noted in an email to The Daily that he felt limited in his capabilities as a volunteer.

With the help of Eliad Amini, another former Red Cross volunteer, Finkelman created the EVI. The organization has “helped hundreds of refugees through [their] lessons and thousands of children through [their] donations,” Amini told The Daily. 

As immigrants, Amini and his family have faced quite a few challenges in their transition to the United States, he wrote, but he believes the experience of refugees is far more difficult. 

“I try to give back to [refugees] as much as I can and I find the EVI a good way to meet many of their unmet needs,” Amini wrote. “Although there were many refugees in Iran, I never directly interacted with them. Only in America did I begin to understand their suffering.”

While Finkelman himself is not a refugee, his parents are both immigrants, and his grandparents are refugees from Moscow, Russia. As Finkelman was growing up, the Russian traditions he was taught by his parents and the American traditions he was taught as a U.S. citizen often conflicted, he wrote. 

Because of his ethnically mixed identity, Finkelman feels he can “see things from different points of views and connect with Americans of all backgrounds.” 

As a Red Cross volunteer, Finkelman represented the organization at San Diego’s Refugee Forum, where he was first introduced to San Diego’s large refugee community. After spending time with the refugee community and noticing gaps in resettlement agencies’ services, due mainly to a lack of funding, Finkelman decided to work toward resolving those gaps and thus created the EVI.

“I was able to learn more about the activities of the resettlement agencies and see the support they provided for refugees first hand,” Finkleman wrote. “ … My project [teaches] refugees the skills we hope will best serve them in life, such as their legal rights, how to eat healthy on a budget, how to navigate San Diego’s public transit system and how to keep money in American banks.”  

Finkelman’s grandfather, Lev Khemlin, said he has had an overall positive experience as a refugee in America, but would also like to help struggling refugees in the country, and he hopes to do so by reflecting to others the same positive treatment he has received. He said he is happy that his grandson is showing his leadership skills through the EVI and that he is meeting new people and teaching them skills as well. 

Going forward, the EVI plans to “increase the frequency of [its] lessons and begin offering an advanced English course along with a resume building course” as well as “present at more libraries in low-income areas of the county,” Finkelman wrote. He has chosen to attend Stanford because he believes it has a very supportive community full of people who are pursuing their passions and breaking the status quo to do so. 

Contact Shivani Gupta at shivanigupta416 ‘at’ gmail.com.

Shivani was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.