A Place of Peace: Summer Camp for Syrian Refugee Children

Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.
Craft time at the camp. Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.

SYRIA-TURKEY BORDER – Last week, my colleagues and I started a summer camp for hundreds of Syrian child refugees on the Syrian-Turkish border. Eight volunteers from Beirut, London, Jaddeh, Toronto, Cairo, Washington D.C and a few Syrian volunteers who live in Turkey spent 10 days at the border area between Syria and Turkey. While pundits and self-proclaimed “experts” are debating what to do in Syria, or whether the US should strike or not, we decided to act rather than talk. After all, over a 100,000 people have been killed and millions have been left displaced. Whether the US bombs Assad or not is not in my control, but being active to help those in need is.

The girls take on the boys in a game of tug-of-war. Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.

For the past few weeks we started fundraising for educational camps for Syrian children, which make up nearly almost half of all Syrian refugees. Some of those we met do not attend school, either because they don’t have books or have yet to gain refugee status, while others are extremely poor and devastated. Most of the children I talked to have lost a family member in the ongoing conflict.

These children do not talk like children anymore. They have lost one of the most valuable things children have: innocence. They talk about loss of homes, family members and dangerous situations as if it were a normal thing. Perhaps the most worrying thing is the uncertainty of what could become of this generation without serious intervention.

I asked Arwa, why wasn’t she afraid, she responded “What is the worse thing that can happen? I die? It is better than this life even without knowing whether I will go to heaven or hell.” 

Two sisters I spoke to, Amneh (11) and Arwa (8), told me about their life. Amneh told me about her fear of the sound of airplanes, even while in Turkey. Her younger sister quickly interrupted and said ” I am not afraid.” Amneh told me that her younger sister would comfort her and hold her hand when during air strikes. When I asked Arwa, why wasn’t she afraid, she responded “What is the worse thing that can happen? I die? It is better than this life even without knowing whether I will go to heaven or hell.”

Amneh also told me about how she was shot at while bicycling around her home. She is traumatized and is unlikely to receive help. Most help is focused on humanitarian aid, which is still way below the actual need. Very few people focus on addressing the effects that the ongoing killing have on these children.

Finally, both girls told me that they miss Syria and they want to go back home. Amneh added that she feels guilty having fun at our summer camp, knowing that many other kids are suffering in Syria and refugee camps.

These are the stories that we need to remember when we argue about Syria. These are the people paying the heavy price. When we pass by a news item about Syria, we must remember the millions of children that could become another lost generation without our willingness to engage and help. I am not talking about political views and arguments – I am talking about find the compassion in our hearts and searching for ways to help. I found what I could do, and I will be back to Turkey, Jordan, and Syria.

Opening our hearts and finding compassion must come before any discussion on military intervention.

Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.
A little Syrian boy kicks around a soccer ball. Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.
building syria
The children build models of Syria. Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.
Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.
Peace. Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.
Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.
Despite a nation under fire, these children still find moments of laughter. Photo courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah.
A walking embodiment of the reconciliation he strives to achieve, Abu Sarah is a Muslim who works closely with rabbis and Christian groups and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, and English. “My goal isn’t to come in to a group of students or soldiers and say here’s my political view, you should think like me. I simply expose them to thoughts they’ve never heard before. Pain is very powerful, very destructive. But it can also be constructive. If you open up and listen to the other side’s suffering you don’t have to agree with their actions, but you can understand where they’re coming from.” In the U.S. he is co-executive director of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (the oldest conflict resolution school in the world). There he builds alliances between Jewish and Arab Americans and has launched a unique study-abroad program bringing students to the Middle East and beyond. “Speakers and excursions delve into the true complexity of the situation here. We include every point of view—Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Muslim, secular, left-wing, right-wing, historical, cultural, environmental. This multi-narrative presentation of ideas is essential to seeing how you can work with very different mindsets toward conflict resolution.” Abu Sarah uses the same concept to create a new model of tourism. His rapidly growing Mejdi tour company has brought thousands of people to the region on trips that highlight diversity. “If you travel here with only one guide,” Abu Sarah notes, “you are limited to one point of view. That’s why we always try to have at least two guides, one Israeli and one Palestinian, plus many local guides all along the way. Whether you explore history, archaeology, or the environment you need all points of view or you’ll go home with a distorted, one-dimensional picture.” The multicultural spirit of the tours is reflected in the people who participate—Jewish congregations, seminary groups, Imams, rabbis, ministers, and students from around the world. Abu Sarah’s passion for peace bears practical fruit: students inspired to cancel tickets home to stay and intern with peace organizations, synagogue groups compelled to share their experiences with churches and mosques, travelers motivated to help build the struggling economy by connecting with local Israeli-Palestinian businesses, the brother of a suicide bomber reaching out to the father of a victim to apologize and say he didn’t find the act heroic, an Israeli teenager determined to join the army and kill Palestinians and now rethinking his decision. “When I see lives like this being saved from the cycle of violence and revenge it makes it all worth it. Maybe I can’t change things politically, but I can change people. And my small changes can make a difference in when this conflict will end. The more I do today, the faster peace will come.”

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