You spend a week with displaced Syrian children and it gives you an insight into the Syrian crisis that is a million times better than anything Assad's enthusiasts in the West can come up with. Child after child says the same thing, airplanes bombing their villages. Mothers, fathers, uncles and cousins killed by Assad's snipers. Hunger, cold, fatigue. Fear and uncertainty as they cross fields and mountains to get to the relative safety of Turkey, and then a quick dash past the Turkish gendarmes and their patrol cars as they crawl down and then up the three metre ditches that have been dug along the border to prevent diesel smuggling from Syria, where it's cheaper.
This was the second time I had been invited by the Zeitouna program for displaced Syrian refugee kids to run my workshop. Unlike last December, the children in this camp were mostly special cases and they were doing an intensive summer school program. A lot of these children hadn't been in a proper school for over a year. I noticed that a higher number of the school children didn't want me to read their diary entries than in December. When they did the stories were heart-wrenching. Their memories were about death, destruction and loss. They were nothing you'd want a ten year old boy or girl to ever have to know. But that is the reality that they and millions of other Syrians have had to face. Beneath the smiling cheerful facade and the noise of the playground everybody in the Salam school carries a terrible burden. That includes the teachers, who have the double burden of trying to help the children live a normal life whilst also carrying their own problems. One teacher told me of how he was held by the security services for over a month with regular beatings and interrogation. He had to hang from the ceiling by his wrists, with his toes barely touching the floor. He was kept like this for three days with no food or water or toilet breaks, and he was beaten by a thick cable. When he'd faint they would chuck a bucket of water on him and he would lick his lips to try and quench his thirst. When they took him down he couldn't feel his hands for hours and thought he had lost their use forever.
After that they made him hold his hands out so that they can hit him with the cables. He was told he would be hit forty times, and that each time he flinched and tried to pull his arms back they would add another five. The final count was ninety and his hands were hit so hard that his finger nails came off. When they finally released him he had lost forty kilograms out of ninety. The judge he was presented to ordered him to tell people that he had been on vacation all this time. He escaped to Turkey as soon as he had the chance.
There is something perverse in hearing about the obscene celebrations in Assad's areas that have been going non-stop since his sham elections, and the suffering these children told me about. I ask the girls in one class to write about the happiest day in their lives, and most of them don't want to do that. They want to write about the saddest day in their lives. At first I'm adamant that they not do that, but then I give in. I tell them they can write about the saddest day in their lives if that's what they want. They say they do. Then they volunteer to read to the class. They were so hungry to tell somebody - anybody - about what happened to them, and the realisation dawned on me that this was how they wanted to unburden themselves of this big weight on their chests. Far from bringing up painful memories, I felt as if we were giving each other the chance to release pent up hurt and anguish. One of the girls started reading her journal entry, and she started talking about how her cousin was killed fighting for the Free Syrian Army, and then how, a few days later, her uncle was also shot by a sniper. I was looking at the other students in the room and was also tired so I then stared out of the window. Then I realised she had stopped talking. I looked at her and she was quietly sobbing. The other students looked down, nobody said a word. Then one girl said, "May he rest in peace", and I repeated that too. She sobbed, and then carried on reading, sharing her heartache with us in the room. It was a moment of commiseration for us all where we acknowledged our common humanity. We were grieving together. And when I think about it now maybe that is what the girls of that 12th grade really needed, somebody to grieve with and listen to how much they had been hurt.
I asked another girl in the 9th grade to write about her last day in Syria and what she saw. She didn't talk about planes bombing them, or about losing loved ones. She was a bubbly cheerful girl with a pink hejab and I liked her. She was one of my favourite students in the class. Then she started reading to us how she and her family were crossing cornfields and ditches to get to the safety of Turkey. I thought she was fine and she was smiling. Halfway through she started to sob and I choked up. She would give that beautiful smile and then start sobbing in between, as if the memory of her displacement was too much to bear and she was doing everything possible to keep up the facade of a happy girl in her early teens. I almost cried in front of everybody but I kept a straight face. My eyes burned.
The stories came non-stop and it's only now, a few days after I have come back, that I can write a little about this past week. It was beautiful, human and warm to be with the children and the teachers, and we all said tearful goodbyes on the final day. One boy came back to hug me three times, and I could feel his chest heave as he cried. I patted him on the back and whispered to him to stay strong and be patient. Inside I was dying. Last week, just briefly, we all shared something wonderful. Maybe in times of war that can make all the difference.