This photo was taken of Peter Kassig earlier this month in Idlib Province, Syria, with some of the supplies they purchased for delivery to the refugee camp. (Photo submitted by Patrick Thevenow)<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->
This photo was taken of Peter Kassig earlier this month in Idlib Province, Syria, with some of the supplies they purchased for delivery to the refugee camp. (Photo submitted by Patrick Thevenow)

Patrick Thevenow has finished his first semester toward earning a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies and Arabic at the University of Chicago. But his ambition goes way beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

The 2008 Madison Consolidated High School graduate is involved in a nonprofit effort to provide relief to refugees affected by the Syrian conflict.

The organization, Special Emergency Response and Aid (SERA), was founded by Iraq veteran Peter Kassig. The group has been incorporated as a nonprofit, but the IRS is currently processing its 501(c)(3) status, which means donations are not yet tax-deductible. Kassig is an Indianapolis native, but he attended courses at Hanover College. He met Thevenow at Butler University and encouraged him to lend a hand.

Now, they have a five-member board of directors, and they're working in Lebanon to have their nonprofit deeply rooted in the Middle East.

Thevenow said the goal is to "try to ease whatever critical burdens they may have."

The organization recently delivered its first wave of supplies, including food and gas-cooking stoves and other items, and it also has transported shipments of donated clothes to refugees in Syria.

The uprising in Syria began in March 2011 when protesters demanded the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and called for the collapse of the Ba'ath Party.

More than 40,000 people have died, half of which were civilians, the U.N. estimates. In addition, thousands of refugees have escaped to neighboring countries Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Kassig works in Lebanon and coordinates the effort, while Thevenow handles the operations in the United States.

While the Middle East makes national headlines daily and is heavily featured in American politics, Thevenow said the organization's focus is much more on the individuals than the politics.

"You see these people and there is shelling going on in their home town, and they've still got to keep going. They've got to find a job, they've got to take care of their families and find a place to live," he said.

Thevenow first became interested in the Middle East at Butler University. He lived with a family in Oman - near Saudi Arabia and Yemen - for four months in 2010. Thevenow said there he learned and experienced daily life in the Middle East, and he found that the daily obligations and worries were not all different from those in America.

"There's very little exposure to daily life in the Middle East for Americans," he added.

Additionally, last year, he was awarded a research grant for his honor's thesis to study in Lebanon and Iraq. On that trip, he visited a Palestinian refugee camp and witnessed the effects of decades of instability and displacement.

The housing facilities were very poorly constructed. Exposed wires ran every direction and there was little to no drainage.

"It was a pretty intense situation, seeing what they needed there," he said.

Right now, Thevenow said, the "immediate attention" for the nonprofit is with the people of Syria, but he hopes that the organization can expand to help others displaced in the Middle East, as well.

"With a little bit of luck and hard work, we can turn this into something that can do a lot of good in changing the lives of people over there," he said. "And moving it beyond those of us that are involved now."

In the meantime, Kassig's church in Indianapolis has extended a hand in providing clothing and accepting donations for the cause. And now that much of the legal work is behind them, Thevenow plans to visit Lebanon in the summer in an effort to expand the operations and work on the ground level.

He hopes to return with more information in order to persuade others to embrace the term "global citizen."

"While we've got plenty of problems here that we need to be working on, we can't forget our place in the world as citizens of the world," he said. "Our ability to help these people are there, so we should try to take advantage of that."