Wildlife

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.

rope
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.
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.”
  • Kristin Shoemaker

    Aziz,
    Your compassion is inspiring, and I am stirred by your statement: “Whether the US bombs Assad or not is not in my control, but being active to help those in need is.” From my distant vantage point in suburban Minnesota I have been searching for ways to do something, but beyond giving financially, I am not seeing obvious ways of contributing.

  • Dale Fox

    I am a healthy and hardy 58 year old American woman living in Istanbul with time on my hands. Speak some very basic Turkish and French, but no Arabic. Do you think I could be of use as a volunteer?

  • Annamarie Franken

    We are a team of 11, currently in Turkey. Will it be possible to join or follow up on the camps you did with the children?

  • glen

    I am desperatley trying to search how to give up a month, 2, 3 months to come out to the refugee camps and assist in the relief in whatever capacity i can. i am an architect and may be able to help with accommodation, living etc. please let me know if there is anybody i can contact to come over and help.

    Glen Michael Thomas
    +44 07711 383313
    glenmthomas@gmail.com

  • Kimberly Cavender

    I am an English teacher in Istanbul and am looking for opportunities to help. I’m healthy, 54, woman with a lot of experience teaching and living with children. I have a break coming up shortly and can help quickly.

  • Denny Darby

    Aziz,
    My daughter and I are starting a campaign at her school for parents/students/teachers etc. to donate gently used shoes for Syrian refugees. We will also raise money for the shipping, but don’t know how to get the shoes to a particular camp. Could you take the shoes? Or, can you point me in the right direction of a person or agency who can?

    You are an inspiration! God bless.

  • Munirah

    I am a qualified childcare worker and teacher. i would love to come and volunteer with any more efforts being made. I worked in 2007 with lebanese, Syrian and Iranian children in Damascus during the Lebanese war. I would welcome the opportunity and perhaps could suggest resources that childcare action groups could provide to help….

  • Taylor Brown

    Aziz, I am planning on working at a waldorf kindergarten in Istanbul this spring, dates are not set and flexible. This would be my first priority if you would have me anytime March, April, May or June. I feel strongly this is something I can do, and that I can be an asset to your team in any way you need me to be. Please email me for my information if you think I can get involved.
    taylornabrown@gmail.com

  • Taylor Brown

    Aziz, I am planning on working at a waldorf kindergarten in Istanbul this spring, dates are not set and flexible. This would be my first priority if you would have me anytime March, April, May or June. I feel strongly this is something I can do, and that I can be an asset to your team in any way you need me to be. Please email me for my information if you think I can get involved.

  • Ariana Gould

    Aziz,
    This is an incredible and very meaningful project. An entire generation of Syrian children have been deeply effected by this enduring conflict. I have worked with children for most of my life and would love to help in any way possible. I currently lead a tutoring project, and have worked at summer camps and teaching children at ski resorts. I have spent time in Jordan and have spoken with Syrian refugees. I will be back in Jordan in January to continue studies in Arabic. Please let me know if I can be of assistance in any capacity.

    -Ariana
    Argould8191@gmail.com

  • Dina Kapen

    Hi Aziz,

    I have been truly inspired by your story and was hoping to ask you if you are organizing the camp again this summer? The reason I ask is because my school provides funding for such humanitarian projects and I would be interested to either collaborate or hear of any advice you might have in organizing an educational summer camp there. Please let me know if you get the chance. Thank you for your activism.

    Best,
    Dina

  • Michelle, Aziz’s assistant

    Hi everyone, Aziz appreciates your messages of support, and we will be happy to speak with each of you regarding your desire to become involved in the educational camps for Syrian refugee children. You can email the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) at crdc@gmu.edu and read more about our upcoming camps at this link: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/empower-syria-s-refugees-project-amal-ou-salam

    Hope to hear from all of you soon!

    Best,
    Michelle

  • mebarkia

    hello my name is Mebarkia seif eddine i am from algeria i would like to help syrian i refugee camps
    i am a native arabic speaker and my major is english
    (teacher of ENG)
    ireally want to help

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