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"I Shed Tears": Turkey-Syria Border, Part 1 of 6

A clean-cut young boy, no more than seventeen years, with eyes full of nerves and excitement, took the microphone. “I shed tears over my beloved Damascus, with the eyes of a wronged revolutionist,” he sang. His voice stilled the room not only with its sorrow, but with its strength. With his strength. We shall call him Wassim, although that is not his name. Wassim is a Syrian refugee teen living in Turkey. He crossed with his sister and parents. His brother continues to languish, as he has for the last year and half, in a Syrian prison. Wassim is eager to tell me his story, struck by my interest. I write this six-part blog series for him, and the many others like him, from whom the world hears very little.

Wassim is a student at the Salam school in Reyhanli, Turkey, right at the Syrian border, where I will be stationed for the next six days. He is one of nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey alone. There are nearly three times that amount of Syrian refugees in other neighboring countries, primarily Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Yes, Iraq. How dire must one’s situation be for them to flee to Iraq?

I traveled to Reyahnli with the Karam Foundation, a non-profit aid organization founded in 2007 and operating in Turkey and Syria. For the last year, Karam has engaged with the Salam school to provide its young students with a physical therapy and wellness program. The school, run by an enigmatic Syrian-Canadian woman named Hazar Mahayni, is funded by Syrian-Canadian private donors and a sister school in Canada. According to Hazar, her dream was to “make a school that is like a home, since these children all lost their homes in Syria.” She believes sincerely that her dream is coming true. What began in October of 2012 with only a handful of teachers and a few students has expanded to a full building with almost 2,000 students and another 1,000 on the wait list. Indeed, recently, the school was able to expand its programming beyond primary education to include secondary education, a rarity in refugee crisis situations. This expansion led the founders of Karam to expand their own programming to include Salam’s new older students – the neglected teens with very little hope of a university education or gainful employment. I am here to observe Karam’s launch of its new leadership program which aims to provide entrepreneurship training and mentoring to Salam’s teenagers.

Tonight was orientation. Our bus, full of entrepreneurs, coders, therapists, marketers, translators, and a chess guru (who may also run a basketball workshop while here), pulled up just as the last two busloads of students were leaving. The children rushed to the windows, waiving their hands with hope. Smiling from ear to ear. They know Karam, since this is its third mission to the school. We waived back, humbled. We then received a tour of the classrooms where the work would take place, as well as the new computer lab built by Karam.

Hazar had assembled all of the teachers, all of them Syrians, in a common area so they could meet us. They were all dressed in what was surely some of their most impressive attire. The female teachers all wore the veil, and sat segregated from the male teachers. Their conservative nature, however, had no impact on the openness of their interactions with our group. Despite the fact that none of us wore the veil, and some of us are neither Syrian nor Muslim. Indeed, we are a hodgepodge of Christians, Muslims and atheists, of Americans, Syrians, Kurds, Lebanese and British (I happen to be an Iranian-American secular humanist). The Salam school teachers greeted all of us as if we were celebrities and shook our hands with intense gratitude. One of them eagerly pulled me aside to tell me that her daughter, a student at the school, had delayed the purchase of her new coat until our arrival – so that she would be pristine upon meeting us.

It was after the introductions (interrupted only briefly by the call to prayer) that Wassim was asked to sing for us. Wassim ’s training as a singer began when he was five years old. He used to recite verses of the Koran in song. Now, he is overcome with revolutionary songs. Songs of his lost homeland. Songs of Syria’s soil. Songs of those of left behind. His faith that he will return home diminishes by the day, just as his integration into the Turkish society becomes more and more inevitable.

What is very much unknown is the nature of that integration. If he is to continue as a refugee without a university education and without work rights, he is destined to a lifetime of dependency and poverty, able to hope for little more than illegal and exploitative employment conditions. Turkey, his host country, having graciously taken in over a million Syrian refugees, is now making significant changes in its laws to allow for the refugees’ integration into Turkish society. But this is no easy task, and significant international assistance, combined with other nations offering asylum to significant numbers of Syrians, is required to prevent the ghettoization of tomorrow’s Syrians. And never has there been a greater need for effective and efficiently run grass roots organizations like the Karam Foundation, offering training, mentorship, and hope.

That Wassim maintains his hopes amidst these conditions is nothing short of magic.

Over the next few days, I expect to meet many more of his kind. Listen to their stories, and re-tell them to you. So that we can all stand united as one world. As one kind. As one species. So that each of us can play their part to effectuate meaningful, sustainable change in the lives of these children. For each of us has great power to do so, if only our spirit is willing.

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