Greetings from my plane ride to Jordan!

I remember the first time I traveled to the Middle East without visiting Syria, the only time I’d been so close to home without actually going home. It was March 2012, my first class abroad as part of my masters program, and what a sad trip it was. Exactly one year after the Syrian revolution had begun; exactly one year after it had gone sour. We were traveling to Egypt to study the aftermath of the revolution. Nothing was more frustrating than being so close to home and yet so far away. Everything seemed to shake me. Because I spent hours a day discussing a country that was so close yet so far away from mine, an uprising that had started so similarly yet ended up so differently. Everything shook me.  

It is necessary to understand that I come from a family where non-violence is the only option, I grew up believing that no matter what happened, a non-violent movement would prevail. However, there I was sitting in a class, in the middle of Cairo, in the midst of revolution, and my professor was going on about the values and the benefits of non-violence while my people, a short plane ride away, were being slaughtered by the hundreds. How could I listen to what a non-violent movement could offer when I came from a place where non-violence was not even a valid option anymore? When the Syrian revolution first began it enveloped all things non-violent, but as time passed the Syrian people were left with few options.

Today as I sit on this plane to Jordan, almost three years after my first trip to the Middle East that wasn’t to go home, I am as heartbroken as I ever was.

I have always tried to be the strong one, the one that shines the light on a dark and gloomy situation. But today I need your comfort; I need someone else to tell me it will be all right, because I’ve come to realize that sometimes even the strongest need support. And now, on this plane, as I approach my destination which is Amman, I wonder how deep we’ve gotten ourselves.  As I sit in tears, (the stewardess actually came up to me to ask if I was okay) I wonder what my room now looks like, what has become of my nanny Aicheh and driver Abou Ali. I wonder if the house still looks the same, if our street still smells the same, if life still in any way still feels the same at all.

Every time I tell my dad, who continues to live in Damascus, that I miss Syria he replies that it is not the Syria I knew. I only miss a memory. I miss something that does not exist anymore. And even though he assures me that the house is the same, that my room and the family are all the same and waiting for our return, I cannot help but think that he is saying this because I am his little girl and that in one way or another he is probably the most heartbroken of all. He sits day after day in our house all alone most probably feeling abandoned by his family, by his people that left Syria, and by the world.

Despite it all, I sit here yet again on a plane to the Middle East to visit a country that is not mine. As I sit on a plane writing a blog that brings me to tears while I make my way to yet another refugee camp filled with thousands more Syrians who have lost everything, I cannot help but be heartbroken. How could we have let it get to this point?

Thinking about my planned trip to Zaatari Camp on Friday, I feel disappointed, disappointed at the thought of how they feel. How do they feel? I’ve interacted with them so many times and every time they tell me they are still hopeful that we can turn the situation around, that there is still hope that we will return.

One of the most difficult things to observe among the refugee population and among all Syrians that have experienced first hand the disturbing effects of this war is the trauma that they suffer daily and that they will continue to suffer if we do not address this trauma. As the days, months and years have now passed and the refugee population continues to grow, and as I continue to hop from country to country to visit them I continue to wonder what I can offer them, what can we offer them?

Lately I have been swamped with questions about how project Amal ou Salam is useful, how is it more beneficial than giving that money directly to families inside Syria? How is more useful than giving money directly to provide humanitarian aid? My response is that so much money is being spent towards feeding and nourishing peoples’ bellies, that not enough resources are going towards nourishing young minds and creating a generation that believes just as much in the power of nonviolence and interfaith cooperation as my family.

How relevant is it to have a well-fed child that cannot even begin to function because he is so traumatized. We must think of these children as the future of Syria, as the leaders that will rebuild and guide tomorrow’s Syria. We should work to make them the best leaders they can be, and our humanitarian aid should come hand in hand with educational support and trauma relief.

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Greetings from Beirut!

As Camp Amal ou Salam has come to an end, I find myself making my way to Lebanon to visit friends but also to explore the possibility of running a similar summer camp for Syria children in Lebanon.

As I sit back now and think of all the wonderful memories we made and experiences shared with the kids in Turkey I am overwhelmed with joy, pride and, most importantly, hope. I want to recount with you, my dear friends, the wonderful and humble moments that made Camp Amal ou Salam the succe.

The volunteers all arrived on the same day and the day after that was dedicated to prepping for the camp ( planning out the workshops, making sure we had all the supplies we needed, planning the meals for the kids…). When “prep” day came to an end, we believed we were ready to take on the huge challenge that we were about to face but boy oh boy were we in for a rude awakening!

My goal for the camp was to work with 100 kids a day over a three day period meaning we would have reached over 300 kids by the end of the camp. I had assumed that with 8 volunteers (including me) this would be manageable, then again  I think my two and a half years away from Syria made me forget what little trouble makers Syrian kids actually are (exactly as I was when I was their age actually!) and so when the kids arrived I think the entire group, and especially myself, felt a bit overwhelmed (please dont dismiss the fact that we were extremely jet lagged and overly stressed) when they realized how hyper the kids actually were and how unorganized we still were. So as to be as honest as possible with you dear readers, from my point of view, the first day of Camp Amal ou Salam did not go as I had hoped and I dont think anyone is to blame for this but as I told myself that night and as I told the volunteers as well, when you are doing an experiment it is rare that you achieve the desired outcome from the first try, in fact you must keep trying until you come up with the perfect antidote for success. That night we gathered as a team and discussed as a team what we felt had gone wrong, what needed improving and what we could each do individually and as a whole to guarantee that the next day would go exactly how we wanted. Now please don’t get me wrong and think that we did not enjoy Day 1 of the camp, we truly did, however my goal for the camp was not just for the kids to have fun- I wanted them to learn new things while they were having fun and by the end of that first day it seemed to me that the kids had taken the whole is a party more than as workshops and because of that I felt like I had failed the wonderful and outgoing kids of Syria.  We had so many wonderful projects planned out for the kids such as the art workshop that would focus on two acitivities:

–       Rebuild your town Workshop: Kids work in groups of four and decide on what they want to build using art supplies (hospital, school, houses, police station, libraries..) through this activity we were not only teaching them teamwork and cooperation but also creativity and innovation; and

–       Peace flags workshop: Each kid is given a piece of fabric and is asked to design his own flag representing peace, when everyone is done we hang all the peace flags together representing a common and unified vision of peace.

Again, one of the main things I vowed to do when I started this blog was to always be honest with all of you and with myself, because I want the new Syria to be built on trust and honesty and hard work. In my opinion these were two of the most beneficial workshops for the kids as they are the ones that raised the most controversy and the only way to learn is to ask questions, the only way to learn is to learn from your mistakes. During the rebuild your town workshop I noticed a group of kids building a mosque and when I asked the entire group why no one thought to build a church they responded that churches were haram and that they had learnt that Christians weren’t on the same level as Christians. Being a Christian myself, this deeply upset me because this is not what I had grown up learning in Damascus however after sitting with the group of kids, the teachers that had accompanied the kids and speaking to the principal of the school the kids came from the kids understood that what they had said was false and that if I was a Christian and had showed them so much love then Christians must be good. I will never forget the moment they made a small circle around me and began to chant “ teacher Nousha! Teacher Nousha! We love you and all Christians!” and then they surprised me by making me crosses out of the art supplies and giving them to me as gifts.

The reality is that situations like this exist and some sectarianism of course exists but we are able to change that! And because of this story I am convinced more than ever that we are able to do so.

At the beginning of each peace flag workshop I began by reminding the kids of the good times we had all lived in Syria before our own government began slaughtering us. I reminded them of the beautiful moments we had each had with our friends and families in our towns and cities. And then I reminded them that what we are living now is temporary. The pain we are all feeling and living is temporary and that even our stay in Turkey was temporary and that soon enough we would all be back in Syria making even better memories together. After I would ask them to each make a peace flag that focused on things that made us happy, things that made us feel good. I also insisted that they did not draw any revolution flags or anything that referred to the current situation. Nevertheless one of the most difficult moments for me was finding those few kids that would draw on their “peace flags” tanks, bombs, schools on fire, and in some cases even images of Bachar being hung. However when that would happen I would always ask them to restart their flags and to not mistake the past for the future and repeated to them that forgiveness and hope were mans strongest assets and that if they were able to overcome the past they would be able to build the best Syria possible. Oddly enough those kids whom I asked to restart their flags would end up with the most inspiring and moving flags by the end of the session.

Now onto the exciting stuff! Day 2 of Camp Amal ou Salam was like a dream, everything went so perfectly that I could’ve sworn it was actually a dream. The team worked so hard and worked so well together to make sure that the events of the previous day did not repeat themselves. Throughout that second day, I couldn’t help but walk around from workshop to workshop in total awe at the transformation that took place over night and of course being the emotional/overdramatic Syrian women that I am (which I totally get from mama dearest) I couldn’t hold back the tears that overtook me every time I saw those angels smile. Of course, if I told you that there was no trouble at all that day you would know I was lying, because at the end of the day “kids will be kids”. However the positivity of the day overcame anything remotely negative that happened.

Day 3 was similar to day 2 in that all the workshops went very efficiently and that the team gave it they’re all. Of course as it was the last and third day of the camp everyone was a little more tired than Day 1 (again though folks please keep in mind that the camp was being held from 9 am till 5pm daily in 40 degrees Celsius weather making it hard for everyone- campers and volunteers- to keep up).

When I first began working on this idea of a summer camp for the kids, I wrote:

We believe that children are the future of Syria. Children are the sole hope of reviving the country, and we believe it is important to empower them. It is important to inspire hope, to put smiles on their faces, and to remind them of what Syria once was and what it has the potential of becoming again. We want to give them the chance to be kids and not victims; we want to give them the chance to be more than “the lost generation.”

As I hugged all those kids goodbye and as they begged us to all come back as soon as possible because it had been the best day of their lives, I understood that we had accomplished our goal in giving them a chance to be themselves again.

Ta7ya Souria! Image

Greetings from Turkey!

I started writing this post at the Istanbul airport, but as you may or may not know the Istanbul airport is one of the most frustrating airports in the world for trying to blog! No wifi, very few areas where you can sit and write peacefully, and no one speaks anything other than Turkish…

Today I arrived to the Turkish-Syrian border accompanied by the wonderful group of volunteers who have gathered from all over the world in this small mission to give our Syrian brothers and sisters back a piece of their childhood that has been robbed from them.

I want to dedicate this post to those volunteers, who not only stepped out of their comfort zones to be with me every step of the way but who also covered all their own expenses (flights to Turkey, hotels and transportation) and never complained. The hard work and dedication they showed was outstanding, and the camp would not have been what it was without each and everyone one of them. They came together as a team and showed everyone what a new Syria must and will look like.

I want to take a second to focus on those volunteers who may not have previously had a strong connection to Syria but were passionate nonetheless. Dana, who is also my cousin, is a Syrian-Canadian who grew up in Canada her whole life. Both her parents are Syrian and she spent many of her summers as a child in Damascus. Dana’s memories of Syria are the memories of a child–she remembers our Arabic house in Damascus, she remembers playing in the streets of our neighborhood with our neighbors and cousins, and she remembers what it felt like to be a happy child in Damascus. Prior to the revolution, Dana knew very little about Syria, very little about Syrian history, traditions and the Syrian community. But when the uprising began she was immediately drawn to the Syrian people and their desire for dignity and basic human rights. She quickly began to ask me and our other cousins questions about Syria and became curious about everything related to Syria. I saw this young lady’s interest in Syria shift completely. Even though Dana speaks broken Arabic, she surprises me every time with her persistence and her will to push through the language barriers in order to get the work done. Dana not only helps me with all my projects but is also now running her own project in the Olive tree camp in Atmeh.

Felicie, who is French but lived for sixteen years in Damascus, was also a volunteer at our camp. Even though Felicie has no Syrian blood, her heart is purely Syrian. She remembers all that Syria offered her and how the Syrian people took her into their homes and loved her as if she was one of their own. Her Arabic is flawless and if you sit with her even for only 15 minutes with her she will recount to you all her adventures (and misadventures)  in our beautiful country. This young lady has visited places in Syria that many of us did not even know existed unttil the revolution began. Felicie inspired me with how she dealt with the kids in the camp, some even called her “Mama Fifi” as her heart is so big she almost suffocated them with her love.

Finally I would like to quickly mention my best friend, brother and partner in peace, Aziz. More people like Aziz is what our world today lacks. Aziz is Palestinian and yet is totally and fully committed to the Syrian cause. He works tirelessly with me to come up with projects and then run them to benefit the Syrian people. Aziz is one of those people who is so brilliant and yet so humble at the same time and will do anything and everything he can to help promote positive change in Syria, but also in the entire world.

I want to point out that I am not focusing on these three volunteers because they worked harder than the others or because they are my favorites. I am focusing on them to point out how everyone is dedicated to the Syrian cause, even non-Syrians and those who were never really attached to Syria from the beginning. I am focusing on them to encourage my Syrian friends, to whom Syria gave them everything they know and love, to get more involved. There is always something to do, there is always a way to help, support and give back to the children and also to our brothers and sisters who work day and night on the inside but also in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon for OUR freedom and for OUR country.

Today, more than ever, we must stand strong together and work together for the Future of our beloved Souria.

Ou Ta7ia Souria!

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Greetings from the most boring airport in the world!

Sitting here in the most awful airports in the history of airports, I’ve missed my flight and so here I am finally starting this blog that I said I would start almost a year ago. Procrastination seems to be a hobby of mine.

So I am off to Canada for a couple days and then from there I am traveling to Turkey. In Turkey I will be running, along with 6 volunteers and my partner Aziz Abu Sarah, a summer camp for Syrian refugee kids in Turkey. At this point, the planning of the whole trip has been so stressful, dramatic and unpredictable that I just want to get there already and be with the children. I want to give them all that I possibly have to offer.

As any Syrian reading this already knows, Syrian society is tiny–in Damascus everyone knew everyone or everyone knew someone who knew everyone. In one way or another everyone thought the same, dressed the same and basically just lived the same. My mother wanted us (my brother and I) to be exposed to different things and people at a young age. She wanted to cultivate our minds and so as we grew older we would understand what else was out there  while embracing it with acceptance and openness. When I look back and compare my childhood to childhoods of the current generation of Syrian kids, it truly breaks my heart. It shatters me to think that in this conflict they are the ones who suffer the most, they are paying the highest price for something they bear no responsibility. It hurts to think that they might not remember the beauty of Syria, the smells of Syria, the music of Syria, the love Syria offers, and the tolerance Syria teaches us. Lately I am sick of the politics, tired of the ongoing and never-ending debates, and exhausted of the constant fear of the unknown. Lately I feel like I know nothing. The one thing I am sure of is them: the children. What I know for sure is that they are the future of Syria and I vow to commit myself to them, to making their lives better in every way. This is  where the idea of the summer camp stemmed from, all I want do is give them hope and see them smile.

Summer camp is honestly my thing. I’ve ben going to summer camps since I was 8. Literally every summer camp you can think of I have probably attended: tennis, basketball, horseback riding, arts (for seven years!), photography, circus, dance, “Peace” camp (also known as Seeds of Peace) and trust me the list goes on. My mom always says “Akhhhhh all those summer camps I sent you to mama and you didn’t retain any of the skills you learnt there did you?!”

So I am dedicating this post to my mother, who many might say is even part angel, for bringing me into this world and then rocking that world. I thank her for signing me up for camp summer after summer. Mama, because of all the experiences you gave me as a child, I am able to share all I have learnt and retained with the beautiful children of Syria. I only hope I can make their childhoods as blessed and joyful as you made mine.

Ta7ia Souria!

“If you’re buil…

“If you’re building for the future, you need to keep your foundations strong, laws of the land enslave the people to a king who demands loyalty but offers nothing in return, I’ve been to the south of France, Palestine and back, you build a kingdom the same way you build a cathedral from the ground up!”

-Robin Hood

Syrian people must be reborn in a way in which  they are able to develop the necessary tools to unite as one people to reconstruct their country together, and truly understand that Syria belongs to all of them and not to one man, one ideology or one religion.

Syria belongs to its people, and this will remain so forever.