When they learned I was traveling to the Turkey-Syria border to interface with the Syrian refugee community, my family was understandably concerned for my safety. I assured them I would remain on the Turkish side of the border at all times. That I would not take any unnecessary risks. That my work would take place almost entirely inside the Salam school for refugee children. Still, I felt brave for coming. That was until I arrived. Every moment here is a revelation. Not only about terror, but about compassion. Here, heroes are everywhere to be found.
Our first full day of work at the Salam school began with us entering into the morning assembly. All of the children were gathered to greet us with the enthusiasm of fans in a rock concert. As we entered, they clapped their hands in the air, jumped up and down, laughed, and chanted "Karam! Karam! Karam! Karam!" Karam, the name of the foundation organizing our trip, means "generosity in Arabic," according to its website. "In other languages, Karam means duty. It means to act. It means that your actions today will affect our lives tomorrow. Basic cause and effect." Karam is careful to avoid what it considers enabling charitable behavior. While it provided the Salam school with a heating system and distributes milk to babies inside Syria, its primary mission is to provide the refugee children in southern Turkey with a message of empowerment.
Empowering refugees of war, however, is no easy task. Every child in this school has seen blood spilled in their streets. That 6-year-old girl in the corner, she watched as her home was destroyed. The nightmares of that 10-year-old boy offering me his snack will not let him sleep. And that 14-year-old girl tapping her foot nervously, she thinks every day about going back to Syria and joining the resistance. These children have lost many loved ones to the savagery of war. Fled. Relocated with little to nothing only to be able to live, with little other dream than the hope of a return to Syria. Yet Karam's leadership programing is designed to enable these children to live in the present. To plan not only for how they will rebuild their homeland if they return, but also for the possibility that they can never return. To utilize what little tools they still have to help themselves succeed in a new country, with a new language, and with the greatest imaginable set-backs life can sling at anyone.
The Salam school is an excellent incubator for Karam's programming. Among other things, despite their trauma, the children come to school. All of those living in Reyhanli are bussed here, but those who moved to the suburbs to escape the rent hikes that followed the influx of tens of thousands of refugees' into this small town, must walk upwards of one hour each way. Often times in the dark morning hours. Sometimes chased by wild street dogs. They arrive to school trembling, but they still come.
I meet Asiyah, a 17-year-old girl with almond eyes and thick eyebrows. She lost her father in the war. After his murder, her mother, along with Asiyah and all eight of her brothers and sisters (aged two to 17), crossed, by foot, into Turkey. Asiyah tears up as she explains that her 7-year-old brother "is completely traumatized by the experience. He is depressed and not interested in school or in life." Asiyah's mother, Latoush, is 37 years old -- my age -- and yet I cannot even imagine a life like hers. While as refugees in Turkey, Latoush has no way to support herself and her children (the family lives off the welfare of others), she is insistent that Asiyah remain in school and try to get in to university. Asiyah is, really, all of her family's hopes and dreams for the future. Her dream is to be able to buy a computer, so she can have internet access at home, but her mother could never afford it.
Halfway through the interview, I notice a ring on Asiyah's right hand (Syrians wear the wedding bands on the right, not the left hand). I ask her if she is married. "Engaged," she says, smiling for the first time since the interview began. Maher, her 27-year-old betrothed, fled to Spain. She says he hopes to make his way to Germany, get asylum, then send for her. But she does not seem convinced she will see him again. I ask Asiyah if she has thought about selling her ring.
"Many times," she says. "I think maybe I can sell the ring and buy a computer."
I ask if Maher would be upset.
"Yes," she says. "But... maybe he will understand."
To be continued...
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Shermin Kruse is the author of Butterfly Stitching.