Diller Family Foundation
The Diller Tikkun Olam Awards recognize 15 Jewish teens each year for their extraordinary community service work. Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the world, is exactly what these teens are doing - showing incredible innovation, creativity, and leadership in their communities and around the world. Kveller is proud to partner with the Diller Foundation to share their amazing stories.
As a child, Adam Sella, 18, spoke English and Hebrew at home, and learned German in school. As a teen, he studied Arabic in Morocco. It was on that trip that he met likeminded teens who were helping refugees. So, Adam came back to the United States and started a club at his Cincinnati high school, called STAR – Students Together Assisting Refugees.
In the past three years, Adam’s organization has raised over $26,000 from donation drives, collected over 750 household items which they distributed among 266 refugee families, and helped nine resettled refugees receive up to $4,000 for college. STAR has also expanded, with numerous chapters across the country. Now a freshman at Harvard, Adam’s vision and inclusive spirit continue to grow. And for that, he certainly deserves one of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards.
We spoke to Adam in between World Cup matches this past summer.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Lebanon, because it seems like a very interesting cultural center in the Middle East. And the dialect of Arabic that I’m most interested in learning is spoken there.
And you started learning different languages at a young age, yes?
I grew up speaking Hebrew and English because my dad is Israeli. I started learning German in third grade at my elementary school and continued to study the language for eight years.
Would you say that language is your favorite subject in school?
No. I think of studying languages as more of an activity I enjoy outside of school — speaking with other people. In the classroom, my favorite subject would probably be on the Humanities side. Like, history or literature or philosophy.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned OUTSIDE the classroom?
How much you can learn with and from other people and the importance of social interaction. Your peers and friends do much more than supplement the classroom.
Tell me how you started STAR.
I started STAR three years ago because I was looking for a way to help refugees in my community. The previous summer, I was in Morocco studying Arabic, and some of my friends on the trip — Americans, too — were also interested in Arabic and the Middle East. Some of them had already been helping refugees. I thought that would be a really great way to use the Arabic that I’d learned over the summer and also do something about the refugee crisis.
I contacted some organizations, trying to find out how I could help. But at that point, I was too young, and a lot of organizations just didn’t get back to me. So, I started a club at my high school and then once the club was founded, they were much more eager to work with us.
And can you tell me about STAR’s tutoring program?
We partnered with an organization in Cincinnati at an elementary school called School of World Languages where a lot of refugee children wind up going. The activities were fun; art or sports or computers. And we were there to help with the games and play with them.
How did you decide that you wanted to make this a national movement?
It kind of happened on its own. I had gotten some publicity, and I guess some other teens at other high schools had seen that and then contacted me asking how they could join and create a chapter. And we created a website, so they could find us.
Are you the central hub for all the STAR chapters across America?
Well, now that I’ve graduated high school, I’m not as involved in the club at my high school. I play more of a role in overseeing the different chapters nationally. Trying to maintain unity. There are about 14 or 15 active chapters now and about eight more that are getting started.
Tell me about the financial assistance you give to refugees who are going to college. How did that come about?
That was as a result of our fundraiser. During my senior year, a group of friends and I had a concert fundraiser at my high school, and we were able to raise $25,000 from that. We partnered with another organization in Cincinnati that already had a scholarship fund established and donated the money to them. Now they’re giving out the money to refugee students.
Who would you say is your biggest hero today, and why?
There’s an Egyptian soccer player, Mohamed Salah, who plays for Liverpool. It’s very inspiring to see how he has united his country and has become such an icon in Egypt. What’s even more exciting is how the fans in Liverpool love him. I remember seeing this English boy with a sign that said Liverpool + Egypt! Mohamed Salah! It’s very cool to see this player connect these different parts of the world. He’s created this very positive energy.
Helping refugees is very much in the news today. What are your thoughts on the current immigration crises around the world?
I just hope that the United States can turn a corner at some point and become more welcoming. Because every American was an immigrant at some point. Immigrants built this country and continue to build this country.