Utah professor leads expeditions to Turkey to help those displaced by war

By Holly Richardson

Sarah Franklin with a young Syrian refugee, April 2017 -- Photo by Michelle Ellsworth

In September, 2015, a picture of a toddler in a red T-shirt, blue shorts and little sneakers went viral. The picture was of Aylan Kurdi and he was the 3-year-old found face-down on a beach in Turkey. He, his mother and his 5-year-old brother were among the many who drowned trying to flee Syria. Little Alyan, however, was the one who put a face on the global refugee crisis.

He also changed Sarah Franklin’s life.

No matter how you slice it, Sarah Franklin is a powerhouse

Professionally, she is an assistant professor at the University of Utah with a research lab focusing on cardiology. She earned her Ph.D. from Brigham Young University at the tender age of 24, then did her postdoctoral training at UCLA. Earlier this year, she was honored by Utah Business as one of the “Forty Under Forty.”

Franklin also has a heart for service and, for the last nine years, she has volunteered at homeless shelters, first for the Upward Bound House in Los Angeles and then for The Road Home in Salt Lake City. She helped found Care-Cuts, an organization providing haircuts and makeovers for the homeless.

But, when Aylan washed up on that beach, she knew she had to do more and she knew she wanted her work to be with refugees. She bought a plane ticket and in February 2016, she and a friend showed up on the Greek island of Lesvos where the largest numbers of refugees were entering Greece. She knuckled down and went to work, volunteering with several aid organizations already on the ground.

Inspired by the people she met and touched by their stories, she returned to Utah and created a non-profit organization, Hope Worldwide Utah, to work with vulnerable and at-risk populations, specifically orphans and refugees.

Franklin also wanted to expand her reach and has created opportunities for affordable humanitarian trips. There is something life-changing about getting to know a few of the real people behind the overwhelming statistics of a global refugee crisis.

She began taking groups with her to the refugee camps - twice more in 2016, then again in April of 2017. My husband and I were part of the April team, along with approximately 20 others. While most of us returned home after our 10-day trip, Franklin and a handful of others made their way into Turkey to connect with some refugee camps there.

There are over 3 million refugees are camped in Turkey, with some 500,000 close to the border. Turkey was declared the world’s largest refugee-hosting country on World Refugee Day this year, hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees worldwide, some 45 percent of all Syrian refugees in the region. Aid groups are few and far between and the ones that are there are stretched thin. The need is enormous.

Franklin is returning to Turkey over Thanksgiving and taking a small team with her to help approximately 950 people in five different camps relatively close to the border of Syria. I am excited to be going as well. One of the projects we will be doing is providing “food boxes” of staples to feed families in the camp. One box will provide food for a family of 10 for one month and will cost a mere $35. There are many other needs as well.

Utah magician Mike Hamilton has now been to Greece and Turkey several times. His “Build-A-Buddy” project has provided 1,200 stuffed animals to refugee children and his magic shows have entertained thousands. In Utah, he performs for school children up and down the state. A “Best of State” award winner, last year, he reached 55,000 Utah students with his “Magic with a Message” show.