Walking through Azraq refugee camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border one boiling day last August, Steve Lehmann (MBA ’14) felt despair tighten his chest.
Whitewashed sheds no bigger than shipping containers glared in endless lines against the dust. Lines of people stood in silence, a line to enter the camp, and an even longer one to try to leave. If war is hell, Azraq was a desert purgatory.
Lehmann felt the most anguish for the kids. Of the four million people estimated to be displaced by Syria’s war, one million are children. There were just two soccer fields for the tens of thousands of children in this camp. “Field” was a misnomer for the spaces. Both were concrete slabs framed by barbed wire.
Lehmann was carrying a blue stuffed toy bear. Spotting it, a Syrian woman motioned frantically. She explained through a translator that her family had fled when they heard barrel bombs dropping nearby.
“My husband said we need to leave now,” she told the translator. In the rush, they hadn’t grabbed her 7-year-old daughter’s stuffed animal. The woman showed them a towel she’d wrapped like a baby for her little girl to hold. Could she have this bear?
So much hope flooded Lehmann that he wanted to hug the woman. He’d waited two years for this confirmation that he’d had a worthwhile idea with Threadies, his special teddy bears for refugee children. The concept is like a cuddlier version of TOMS Shoes — when a colorful stuffed animal is ordered, one goes to a child in a troubled area, and its twin to a donor in the U.S. or beyond.
Bright and soft, the Threadies were designed with psychologists’ input to be supportive and comforting. Each has a treasure pocket. In it, the refugee bears hold cards with exercises for coping with trauma, while the U.S. bears come with an empathetic poem. “Our idea is helping kids step into the story of other kids to help them share comfort,” Lehmann says. “It’s a moral imagination booster.”
Yet the business almost never came to be. Lehmann’s background intertwines two separate strands: helping other people and developing tech solutions. He studied mechanical engineering as an undergrad at Valparaiso University. Before entering the Notre Dame MBA program, he’d worked briefly for the American Refugee Committee, analyzing Haitian cholera camps and shelter construction. After he completed his MBA, he assumed his current position at a Chicago tech-innovation consultancy. He wanted to help the displaced but thought that would come through an engineering breakthrough, not a teddy bear.
Still, when Lehmann was halfway into his two-year MBA, a different concept hit him. He was leading Notre Dame’s Net Impact club by that point, and he wanted to synthesize business with humanitarian impulses. Traveling on a school break with his brother, Lehmann walked past a Seattle toy store and thought back to how much he’d loved his stuffed dog, Boppy, as a kid. If Boppy had helped Lehmann growing up in Northern Indiana, how much could a teddy bear comfort a refugee child? The grain of the idea for Threadies was formed.
He worried it might seem too cutesy for refugees with serious issues. Yet various Notre Dame leaders, such as Melissa Paulsen, encouraged him to develop the concept. Paulsen serves as director of social entrepreneurship initiatives at the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. A mother of four herself, she’s seen children with little to play with but sticks in desperate places she’s visited, so the product doubly resonated with her.
“A stuffed animal is a personal item. It’s comfort and security,” Paulsen says. “The buy-one-give-one model doesn’t work in every situation, but I think this is one in which it does. Literally and figuratively, a teddy bear is not a difficult product to wrap your arms around.”
Lehmann also consulted psychologists, who affirmed his instincts that stuffed animals can help build resilience. Dr. Meghan Marsac, an assistant clinical psychology professor affiliated with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, advised him on the development of “coping cards.” Humanitarian caseworkers lead the kids through the cards’ exercises for helping heal trauma. The cards have prompts like “I Keep Having Bad Dreams” and “I Miss My Friends,” and recommended exercises such as drawing pictures and naming all the new friends made at the camp.
As he worked through the product development process, Lehmann found a business partner in his Valparaiso roommate, Andrew Jones, who now runs a fair trade shop called Fair & Square Imports outside Dallas. The two agreed to form a company and see how far they could carry it. Jones helped hammer out production and shipping details with a socially conscious manufacturer in the West Bank. A group of at-risk Palestinian women sew the bears there, allowing them an income to support their families.
The company’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, with an initial goal of $20,000, raised $35,000. Threadies got media attention ranging from the feel-good site Upworthy to the Portuguese newspaper Publico to the local Times of Northwest Indiana. The first 1,200 bears were shipped to American and international buyers in time for Christmas 2015.
But Lehmann and Jones are still crusading to get the matching-twin bears to the kids who need them most. They’d expected manufacturing the Threadies to be challenging, but it’s been a snap compared to the bureaucracy of getting them to refugees, Lehmann says. Because of the Islamic State’s terrorism threats, all but essential items are restricted from entering camps such as Azraq. The partners are now working with the Chicago-based Karam Foundation to ship the stuffed animals to schools educating refugees in Turkey this spring.
Lehmann still thinks about a man he met at the end of his time at Azraq. His translator was gone by then, so he and the man passed his smartphone back and forth, relying on Google Translate to cobble English and Arabic together. They’d type, press “translate,” and study each other’s faces to see whether the results made sense.
“Life’s hard here in the camp,” the man wrote.
“I can see that,” Lehmann typed back. He glanced at the man’s 6-year-old son running after a soccer ball. The son looked happy for the moment, but with so much pent-up negative energy, kids his age would often break into fights in the camp. “The future seems hopeless here.”
More typing. “I have eight children. We will try to go back to Syria, take a boat to Greece and hope to get to Holland. I have family there.”
“I just know the road is dangerous,” Lehmann wrote. “The best I can do is pray for you.”
A few weeks after Lehmann got back to the U.S., a photo surfaced of another Syrian boy, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his drowned body facedown on a Turkish beach. The image seared itself on the international consciousness — and on Lehmann’s. He thought back to the purgatory of the camps, and the father of eight who was willing to risk that trip.
Refugee camps are designed to be less than hospitable so that people will move on to permanent homes, preventing camps from becoming shantytowns one day. Lehmann understands that. Still, for kids stuck in barren desert expanses like Azraq, he feels an edge of righteous anger. The least he would like to do is get them a stuffed animal.
“In my mind, I keep thinking about the kids getting the bears,” he says, “and that keeps me going forward.”