In April 2015, the Karam Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, launched its fifth Innovative Education mission for displaced Syrian children and youth. Karam’s team of more than 40 international mentors worked with upward of 400 Syrian students from four schools in grades 1-12, leading workshops that included entrepreneurship, arts, language arts, sports, yoga and full dental/vision clinics and screenings.
This is the final post in our nine-part series about our mission. Written by the mentors, the series offers a glimpse of what it is like to work on the Syrian border, shares personal stories of extraordinarily talented and resilient kids, and reminds us that the Syrian children are more than the world knows, more than the world lets them be. They are #NotInvisible.
This series is dedicated to our unwavering hope in the next generation of Syrian kids. We hope the stories will inspire you to action.
It didn’t matter which class I was teaching, whether boys or girls, they all closed their eyes and listened attentively as I played the recordings for them. A month earlier, I had visited cafes in Italy and England and recorded the sounds of life around me.
For the Syrian children in Reyhanli, Turkey, made refugees by war, I might as well have made the recordings on Mars. They smiled at the strange chatter and the clinking sounds of coffee cups, or the whoosh of a cappuccino machine, and giggled when they heard a woman in Milan laughing out loud. When the recording finished I asked them to open their eyes and write about the scene they listened to. One student imagined a piano player in the background and a couple dancing in the middle of the cafe. Others imagined the guests were playing chess or backgammon, or rustling through newspapers. Still others imagined plates of cake, tarts and other sweet things to have with the coffee and tea. A boy asked me inquisitively if they had yerba mate (an Argentinian tea popular in Syria) in England, and I laughed at that. “No” I said, “I doubt very much that they serve yerba mate”. The boy’s enthusiastic smile dropped, so I told him to put that in anyway.
There were other exercises I ran during the week I was with the children, but this one stuck in my mind the most. To these Syrian children, stuck in a town on the Turkish-Syrian border with little hope of returning home and even less hope of being able to settle anywhere, the sounds of normal life in a European city utterly fascinated them, and yet at the same time they must have been tantalizing and frustrating. Like most young people a lot of the children, especially the boys, saw life as something that is happening elsewhere and they were desperate to catch it before youth had passed them by.
I couldn’t blame them, after all, I too had felt the same way when I was their age. Each of those children was a young adult who was slowly emerging, and this adult was impatient, full of energy, and hungry for their share of this world. It was an indifferent world that had closed its doors to them, but they were determined to find it nevertheless.
On the last day of the workshop I announced the winners of a writing competition that I’d run, and handed out the prizes: four beautifully bound and expensive journals with matching Parker fountain pens. The children were ecstatic and, like in many competitions, there were even some sore losers but the experience had been positive. The winners, two boys and two girls, had written truly exceptional entries for my question, “What is Happiness?”
They all clamored for my contact details and after I landed back in England they overwhelmed me with messages and greetings. Some, especially the boys, were persistent to the point that I was getting annoyed but then I realized how desperate they were for somebody, anybody, to talk to them, and listen. I decided to let each and every one of them know that I was there if they ever needed to talk to me, and I replied to each message that they sent me, even if I was busy.
One evening, Nour, who had won the prize for the seventh grade, messaged me on Facebook. She had a simple question, “What do I need to do to be a good writer?”
“I’ll tell you the secret,” I said, “The secret is to read and write, a lot. Every day.”
“Yes, I’ll do that,” she replied, sending me a massive smiley face emoticon.
“Good,” I said, thinking that was the end of that.
“I promise I’ll follow your advice. And one day, sir, when you’re an old man, keep an eye out for the newspaper that gets dropped at your door. Because I’ll have an article in it.”
“I hope so. I’m sure you’ll be a success,” I said, smiling to myself.
“You will remember my name? Won’t you? You won’t forget about me?” she asked.
“I won’t,” I replied.
Wassim Al-Adel is a Syrian writer and blogger who lives in London. Wassim has been a literary arts mentor for three of Karam Foundation’s Innovative Education missions and is planning to attend his fourth mission with Karam this November.