Syria Deeply speaks with the founder of the Syrian region of Ghouta, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, has been blockaded by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces since the regime lost control of the area on October 10, 2010. Electricity, water and food supplies have been cut off, and schools, hospitals and all other public service facilities are no longer operational. Ghouta has been bombed with poison gas several times – notably on August 21, 2013 – and the regime’s air force still targets the area almost daily. The inhumane conditions faced by residents have inspired one group of young people to create educational and development projects that seek to improve the lives of those now lacking the basic human rights most of us take for granted.
We talked to Majd, 28, who founded the Fountain of Life Center for Childhood in the city of Misraba, Ghouta, in February 2013. Majd left Syria two months ago for family reasons – his elderly parents needed medicine and specialist care and he is their only son – and now resides in France, from where he continues to work on the project.
Syria Deeply: How did you start your project? And who helped you?
Majd: Before the Syrian revolution, I worked for several years developing educational and psychological support infrastructure for refugee children. The project was initiated by UNICEF and the Red Crescent in an effort to create child-friendly areas for Iraqi children in Syria. After Ghouta was liberated by various FSA (Free Syrian Army) factions, the schools were targeted by regime airstrikes and the area did not provide any educational environments for children. Recognizing this void, my friends and I decided to found play-based field schools.
It all started with the efforts of individuals. We searched for qualified young men and women who were willing to help, and we trained them in play-based education. For their work, they are paid $100 a month. The municipality of Misraba supported us in the beginning and provided us with a center in which to start our project. A friend of mine, a psychologist who was able to enter Ghouta, helped me as well. Before he arrived, there were no psychologists in the city, and doctors were generally prohibited from entering the blockaded region, so we held training sessions for the volunteers via Skype. Today, we have five centers that serve children between the ages of four and six as well as women.
Syria Deeply: Would you tell us more about those five centers and how you function under the volatile security situation.
Majd: According to statistics from local councils and medical stations, 850,000 people are besieged in Ghouta. Our centers had to be located in areas that people could reach with minimum risk. There are two centers in the city of Douma and the other three are in Misraba, al-Rayhan and al-Shifounya. Some centers hold two shifts.
Unfortunately, we are unable to provide continuous safety and security for the children, so our work focuses on creating temporary safe havens for them. We take all feasible precautions. For instance, the artillery bombardment is directed toward Ghouta from the Qassioun, Hafir and Harasta suburbs, so we located our centers in basements on the opposite sides of these points. Unfortunately, however, the air bombardment is random, and we cannot predict where the bombs will fall. The centers are equipped with medical kits and our teams are trained to execute evacuation plans and administer first aid. We also coordinate with both the medical stations and the civil defense team when there are bombings.
Our center in al-Rayhan was bombed once and one of our centers in Douma was also bombed a few times, but, all thanks to God, no kids were hurt.
Syria Deeply: What programs and activities do the centers provide?
Majd: We have monthly themes for social activities that support the children’s psychological health. A team trained in child psychology designs the monthly activities plan, and a logistics expert procures the required materials. For example, as our theme this month is “personalhygiene,” the activities include games, songs, stories and cartoons that focus on that subject. At the end of the month, we also provide the kids with personal hygiene kits, each with a toothbrush, tube of toothpaste, bar of soap, personal cup and hand sanitizer. Kids also learn the alphabet and numbers in both Arabic and English.
Many families have lost their primary breadwinners. For that reason, we also focus on empowering women with the skills needed to independently provide a minimum standard of living for their families – so they don’t have to send their kids to work at an early age. We offer workshops in sewing, knitting, English language, computing, beauty and nursing.
Syria Deeply: What kind of psychological issues do the children suffer from?
Majd: The blockade has had a dramatic effect on the children. Most children under five years of age who were born in the besieged areas of Syria have never encountered some of the most basic things in life. They don’t know what electricity is, what cartoons are, and they have never tasted fruit. What should we expect from children who don’t have access to education, who don’t know what stability is, and who are constantly surrounded by death?
Even for young children who have not lost a family member, bombing, mass arrests and chemical attacks have been fundamental aspects of their entire lives. Many children are introverted and scared and they suffer from bedwetting. This is why we provide stress-relieving activities such as painting and music. Due to the blockade and the constant bombing, the parks are in very bad shape. So, for one of our activities, we took the kids to a nearby park, provided them with paints and overalls, and asked them to color the rocks.
Syria Deeply: How many children and women do the centers serve?
Majd: Our courses usually last three months. Every three months, one class graduates and another starts. Our programs serve an average of 900 children and 200 women every three months. Of course, the number varies depending on the security situation and the intensity of the shelling. There are two types of programs for women: One provides professional training, while the other focuses on psychological support. In the latter, our specialists seek to optimize results by working with the mothers of the children who attend the program. They also offer psychological support for distressed women through group and one-on-one sessions.
Syria Deeply: What kind of challenges do you face?
Majd: In the beginning we suffered greatly from a lack of resources. Securing supplies for the project was the hardest part. In many cases, for example, we had to break our pencils in half so that each child could have one. Later on, several international organizations supported and funded our project, and then the situation got a little better.
Securing supplies is still the biggest challenge that we face, however. We prepare meals, provide toothbrushes, stationery and other necessities. We were also able to distribute food baskets – on our most recent campaign, we delivered them to 1,000 families in Ghouta. The baskets contained food, which we brought in from Damascus by bribing those in control of the checkpoints, such as seasonal fruits, wheat, cheese, jam and other basic food supplies. But these were very expensive. For example, it costs 3,200 SYP [$13] to bring one kilo [2.2 pounds] of flour into Ghouta, while its original cost in Damascus is 50 SYP [$0.20]. The idea of the food baskets occurred to us when we served fruit to the kids at the center and then they would go home and tell their parents and siblings about it. Of course, parents cannot afford to buy fruit for their families, so we thought that delivering food baskets might help bring a little relief and happiness to older siblings and parents.
Another challenge is the security situation and the heavy bombing – it forces us to stop working, sometimes for a few days at a time, and sometimes for a few weeks at a time.
Syria Deeply: How do the people in Ghouta respond to the project?
Majd: We periodically conduct surveys and all the polls are positive. Parents are happy with the results. Many children who suffered from bedwetting are much better now. When a kid who was introverted before coming to the center stands up and performs in front of 500 people, I feel happy. That just feels great.
Syria Deeply: Do you have any plans for the future? Do you have any concerns?
Majd: Our goal is for this project to become a public service for all residents – one that does not need external funding to continue operating. Our biggest fear is for the safety of the children. We are responsible for their safety while they are in the center. We worry about the day that delivers us an emergency bigger than we can handle. If just one child gets hurt, we’ll have that hanging over our heads forever.