Last summer, seven UVA students affiliated with humanitarian organization Blossom Together flew to the capital of Mali in West Africa for a unique experience. With support from a local hospital and a surgeon from Kazakhstan, they collectively performed a little over 100 cataract surgeries.
“The operating room was very small, so we took turns assisting the surgeon,” explains Sami Kandil (McIntire ’23), who founded the student-led nonprofit while he was still in high school.
This was just one of the efforts that Blossom Together sponsored in West Africa that summer. Students from UVA and other university-affiliated Blossom Together chapters also traveled to Burkina Faso and Benin, partnering with non-governmental and local aid organizations to provide medical, hunger, and water relief.
“We opened up five water wells in rural areas of Benin where people did not have access to clean water. We also did some school visits, met with children, and delivered much needed supplies. Finally, our fundraising efforts throughout the year allowed us to fund food packages for the impoverished,” Kandil says.
New Year, New Goals, New Country
After Kandil returned to the United States, he and the Blossom Together team began outlining their plans for the upcoming year. Their goal was to increase the number of participants at UVA as well as the number of chapters of Blossom Together at other universities. They identified opportunities to raise funds, such as stadium cleanups after UVA football games, for their summer projects, and looked to expand the number of partners in the countries they had previously visited as well as their relief efforts into new countries.
“We have some great partners abroad in all of the countries we work in, but I knew going into the summer of 2023 that I wanted to expand,” Kandil says. “We will be traveling to Tanzania this year, which marks the fifth country our organization has worked in, and to date, we’ve raised nearly $50,000 to support this year’s projects.”
As has been the case with many of the partnerships forged between Blossom Together and organizations abroad, Kandil’s connection to the International Eye Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where Blossom Together volunteers will perform cataract surgeries, has been through an acquaintance of Kandil who is in contact with an ophthalmology surgeon who runs the hospital.
In addition to giving the gift of sight, Kandil says the organization will open multiple water wells in rural areas and visit a local orphanage to deliver one month’s worth of food supplies. A record number of volunteers are participating—10 are from UVA, and three are from other chapters. Though the summer expedition is headed to Tanzania, Blossom Together is simultaneously managing projects in three other countries this year—with cataract surgeries in Mali, food packages in Burkina Faso, and water wells in Benin.
“We will be traveling for two weeks beginning in late May. It’s nice to experience these new cultures, meet new people, and hear new languages,” Kandil says. “It really puts the work we’re doing into perspective, when you get to see the tangible and immediate impact it can have on the lives of the people we’re supporting.”
Connecting the Classroom with the Real World
A large component of Blossom Together’s work is rooted in relationship management. The relationships among the volunteers themselves, among the volunteers and the partner organizations abroad, and with the local people are critical to ensuring these relief initiatives are successful.
“There’s a lot of people skills at the core of this, and I’ve picked up a lot of those skills from my classes and professors at McIntire,” Kandil notes. “The global business mindset was something we went into a lot of detail during ICE, especially the aspects of working with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and companies.”
He also says that the McIntire curriculum taught him the importance of acknowledging these differences, making sure to follow whatever customs or traditions a country has, and showing the utmost respect so that the partnerships he builds remain after the Blossom Together volunteers travel home.
“It’s important that we keep in touch and show our gratitude for all of their support and help, because without that, we would be unable to execute our relief initiatives.”
Another lesson Kandil has learned in managing Blossom Together at UVA and the multiple chapters outside of UVA is to accept help and support from wherever possible.
“At the end of the day, the work we do as a nonprofit depends on the generosity of a lot of people who volunteer their time and support to serve a purpose that is greater than themselves,” he says.
The Future of Blossom Together
When Kandil founded the nonprofit back in 2018, his mission was to create a vehicle through which he could give back and serve a purpose that was greater than himself. His passion for service is inspired by the lessons he was taught by his father, growing up in a conservative household and through his Muslim faith.
“My father had a quote: ‘It is important to seek happiness in the happiness in others.’ Throughout my childhood, I was encouraged to give back and serve others. With Blossom Together, I’m giving back across the Atlantic on a different continent and at a much larger scale. But it’s important to me and very important to the committed people who have joined this organization,” he says.
Currently, UVA’s chapter of Blossom Together has about 60 volunteers who contribute throughout the year during events that raise funds for the organization to then allocate towards the various initiatives it supports. Kandil is incredibly proud of how the team has been able to collaborate to grow Blossom Together in terms of size—participants and the amount of money raised—year over year.
But as he looks towards graduation later this spring, Kandil says he is prepared to pass the torch to the next set of UVA leaders.
“We’re hoping that the next team will leverage our contacts, resources, and experience to spur Blossom Together to grow even more. It has a lot of potential at UVA and at our chapter universities. It’s attracted a lot of very brilliant students, and I plan to be involved as an adviser and as a donor as I transition from student to alumnus.”
Though he may be departing UVA and his leadership post at Blossom Together, Kandil will certainly treasure the life-changing experiences he’s had over the last six years.
“The countries I’ve traveled to with this organization are beautiful, and the interactions I’ve had with the people were unforgettable experiences,” he says.