Liza Koshy is here to help.
The 26-year-old social media personality and upcoming star of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts recently traveled to Jordan with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to support Syrian refugees — a mission she inherited from her older sister Olivia.
“I’m the youngest of three, and so my sisters have always been role models for me and my family, particularly my sister who attended the trip with me. She’s always felt impacted by the stories, and that trickled down into me,” Koshy explains, adding that she started working with UNHCR a few years ago, so that she herself could “better understand [refugees’] challenges, but also their dreams and ambitions and the humans they are.”
In Koshy’s opinion, it’s the humanity that is too often overlooked.
“Refugee is a term with a lack of understanding,” she says. “Simply put, the equation is ‘refugees equal humans,’ and that is the story we need to know. It allows us to be exposed to a different culture that, when mixed with ours, makes our plate all the more savory or all the more sweet.”
Koshy has seen that analogy play out literally: As part of her work with UNHCR, she has participated in an activity with refugees in which they swap foods representing their different cultures. A Syrian refugee, for instance, passed a plate of falafel to Koshy, and she shared a plate of curry.
“And then we shared a conversation while indulging. Imagining the fusion of flavors in our cultures on one plate makes it all the more layered and nuanced. And that’s what my partnership with UNHCR is all about.”
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As an organization, UNHCR helps refugees and displaced people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, conflict and persecution. More than 80,000 refugees live in Jordan’s Za’atari camp, which was founded by the UNHCR after the refugee crisis began in Syria in March 2011. The Za’atari camp is now 10 years old, having been created just a little over a year after the crisis started.
“It’s been 12 years [total] that these families have been living in Jordan,” she says. “There are 33 schools now in the Za’atari camp. There’s community centers they’ve created. And they also have another camp, Azraq Camp, that houses 40,000.”
“They provide shelter. They’re called caravans, but they’re essentially temporary buildings given to these families. But the caravans have an expiration date, and it’s coming up.”
While in Jordan, Koshy spent time in a caravan with a refugee named Rania, who lives with her mother and siblings.
“The walls are deteriorating. They’re making do with what they have, but that’s why UNHCR needs all the more attention and awareness and information,” Koshy explains. “That’s where all the funds, the donations, play a key part.”
Koshy was also introduced to Dania, a young mom taking care of her son, Jude, while her husband struggles with his vision.
“I got to sit with Dania and her baby, and she faced so many adversities and so many roadblocks in a road that she continues to trudge on,” she recalls. “She has a husband who’s losing his sight. She lost her father to cancer. She has this brand new baby and wants to have more, but financially, it’s not looking up for her. I asked her to describe a day in her life, walk me through what that looks like for her.”
That traumatic experience of fleeing her home in Syria pained Dania too much to reflect upon, although she told Koshy that her son, Jude, brings her “joy” and “hope” for the future. Dania also emphasized how helpful the UNHCR has been.
“She was just so sweet and sharing, playing with her baby the whole time,” Koshy says. “She was like, ‘I just want to give opportunities to Jude that I didn’t have. I want him to have a life without the trauma. I don’t want to impose those feelings on him.'”
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Koshy was also exposed to UNHCR’s TIGER (These Inspiring Girls Enjoy Reading) program for young women in Jordan, which, in addition to promoting literacy in both Arabic and English, also focuses on female empowerment by encouraging the girls to stand up to bullying.
“In Jordan, they face adversity as young women. School bullies still exist in their world, as if there isn’t enough on their plate. So the TIGER program helps them face those bullies and approach them with love and kindness, unlike the way they’re being treated.”
Looking ahead, Koshy hopes to continue traveling with UNHCR and raise awareness, noting, “You never know who might get bit by that human love bug next.”
“It’s caused a stir within my soul,” she concludes of her experience in Jordan. “I’ve crafted a public-facing career so these more private, unheard, untold stories have a chance to have the mic held up to [them]. I am so honored to do that. It’s their stories that need to be heard.”
For more on Liza Koshy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.