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The Zeitouna Diaries, Part 3: Orientation

At a camp for Syrian children, the Syrian-American author finds resilience – and home.

Written by Lina Sergie Attar Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

A Syrian child walks through the doors of a school for Syrian refugees with his mother. He hasn’t been to school for months at a time and has fallen behind his grade level. The mother requests to register her son. The administrator follows the school’s strict protocol and tells the family that the boy would be placed on the long waiting list. The doors close behind them.

It is a typical story that happens every day across Turkey to hundreds of desperate Syrian children. This time, however, was different.

Hazar Mahayni, founder and principal of the Salam School for Syrian refugees in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli,overheard the exchange last spring via Skype. Mahayni, a pharmacist who spends half the year at the school and the rest of her time in Montreal, had heard too many of these stories over the past two years. Although her school was beyond maximum capacity with 1,200 registered students, she says, “I knew if this child was turned away, he would never come back.”

The crisis in Syria was getting worse by the day. Refugee education could no longer be treated as a temporary crutch until people went back home. The harsh reality was that many of these refugees will never go back home. Too many Syrian children had already been shut out of the makeshift education system. Too many were idly roaming the streets while their futures wasted away. Mahayni decided to change her school’s policy.

She was inspired by her own experience as a Canadian immigrant: Canada integrates newcomers into their adopted country through a “welcome” program — a multi-tiered education system focused on language and math.

Three “Welcome Classes” were launched in the Salam School this summer. Each class accommodates 30 Syrian children at various levels and ages. The class curriculum focuses on reading, writing, math and English. All the students have missed at least one year of school. Some, including one 15-year-old girl, are illiterate.

Mahayni has witnessed firsthand how refugee children’s lives are changed by going – or not going – to school. It’s a devastating business; you can’t save every child. All you can do is focus on the ones you are able to grasp.

Wassim, 9, was a shy boy. He attended classes for one week and then disappeared for two. As a result he was always behind his classmates. Mahayni asked him what was wrong. He mumbled, “Kids don’t like me.” She noticed his hands were covered with an inflamed red rash and infected scabs.

Wassim had been working with his father for long, 12-hour shifts. His job was to pick leftover cotton threads off cotton-processing machinery. It was difficult work for small fingers. The raw cotton cut his skin open. His hands bled and were left untreated. His father claimed he needed his son’s daily wages to survive. Mahayni convinced him to send his son for only three hours a day. She offered Wassim a cash prize if he didn’t miss a day of school.

Wassim came back to school but was too embarrassed to join his class again. Mahayni gave him a “job” in the office and covered his hands with creams every day. After a few days he began to play outside during the sports classes. His hands healed. He started attending class. At the end of the year, Wassim won the school award for best attendance.

Stories like Wassim’s solidified Mahayni’s determination, “We will always be open for any child who wants to go to school.”

I listen to these accounts with Zeitouna’s executive director, Kinda Hibrawi, a day before our team of a few dozen international mentors were to arrive in Reyhanli. We would be working with 90 of the “Welcome Class” students in addition to 500 students between grades 1-12, attending summer school because they had been wait-listed during the school year.

The next afternoon we visit the school to meet with the group of 60 teachers and administrators, all of them Syrian refugees as well. We explain the program and introduce a few of the mentors. Our team of psycho-social therapists addresses the teachers. Brazilian somatic therapist Ale Duarte explains the difficulties of teaching a classroom of traumatized children. I watched the teachers collectively nod as he pointed out gently: “When you find yourself not in control of your classroom, you can’t take it personally. You are not a bad teacher. They are not bad children. It’s not your fault.”

Child psychologist Jackie Parke from California tells the teachers that she did not travel here alone – she was financially and emotionally supported by many friends and family who helped her arrive to this school to help these children. In an instant, the expressions on the teachers’ faces transform from closed to open as they listen. Some tear up. In that moment, we were a unified team of people with one goal: the children.

We sit together in this circle of trauma, a community of trauma. If it takes a village to raise a child in times of peace, then it takes an outpouring of global compassion to raise children in times of war.

Back at the hotel, the conference room has been buzzing with activity all day. The team includes people joining us for a second mission, some with their daughters and sisters. It also includes people who have never been to the Middle East before, let alone the Syrian border. They come from around the world: Ireland, Britain, Germany, Brazil, the U.S. Only about half of us are originally Syrian. Our team of translators just arrived from inside Syria.

They create long assembly lines and pack 600 dental hygiene kits for the students. Suitcases of supplies are organized. Boxes of materials are emptied and labeled. As they work together, the international strangers slowly bond. In a few days, they will be like a family.

Six months of planning is distilled into this space. We’ve chosen our mentors, created a complex mix of visual and literary arts, sports, dental, music and therapy workshops, and organized a grueling schedule for the next four days. Zeitouna’s success is now in this group’s hands.

As night falls, we begin our traditional Zeitouna orientation. Our rules are clear: no politics, no religion, no handouts. I look at the faces around me and know that they have no idea what to expect. I tell them the only thing I know for sure: “In four days, every one of us will be different people. Your lives are about to change forever.”

Tomorrow, we begin.

To be continued

Zeitouna is a creative therapy and physical wellness program for displaced Syrian children run by Karam Foundation. Zeitouna’s third mission took place in Turkey last week. Follow the Zeitouna Diaries on Syria Deeply.

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