Novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab joins a school for Syrian refugees on the Turkish border and, at last, finds something to smile about
Helping a lucky few
Syria is my father’s country, where I spent an important part of my young adulthood, where my son was born. Living there was the inspiration for my first novel (though it’s set mainly in London). In fact, I fell in love with Syria – with its enormous cultural and historical heritage, its climatic extremes, and its warm and endlessly diverse people.
Of course, there were moments – for example, visiting a broken man who’d been released after 22 years imprisonment for a “political offence” – when I felt like getting the next plane out. And, before too long, I did move on because a stagnant dictatorship was no place to build a future.
Then, in 2011, the revolution erupted. This moment of hope was followed by a counter-revolutionary repression of unprecedented ferocity. How to respond? For a long time, I wrote and spoke to anyone who would listen on one theme: the necessity of funding and arming the Free Army – civilian volunteers and defectors from Bashaar Al Assad’s military. Nobody did arm them, not seriously, and as a result, the Free Army lost influence and Islamist factions filled the gap. Assad’s calculated manipulation of sectarian fears produced a Sunni backlash. Al Qaeda franchises set up fiefdoms near the Turkish border, and the West increasingly understood the Syrian drama not as a battle for freedom, but as a security issue.
In illustration of this fact, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport as I started my most recent trip to the Turkish-Syrian border in December and was questioned under the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act. “Which side do you support?” they asked me. I explained there are many sides now, but the question seemed to be either/or: the regime or the jihad – and support for the (genocidal) regime was the answer which ticked the “no further threat” box.
They also asked why I was going. The answer: I was lucky enough to know a group of committed and talented Syrian-Americans, including Chicago-based architect and writer Lina Sergie Attar, founder of the Karam Foundation. Karam delivers aid and opportunity to war-struck Syrian communities, and I was on my way to give storytelling workshops at a school for refugees.
How do you act usefully in the face of a tragedy that unfolds on an incomprehensible scale? Syrians and their friends were forced to address this question as Assad’s genocidal repression transformed the popular revolution into a civil war, and as an unthinkable third of the population were made refugees. Every city except two has crumbled, in whole or in part, under bombardment. Ancient mosques and churches have been reduced to dust. The country’s multicultural social fabric appeared to dissolve.
Syrians inside the country were propelled into actions they would have formerly found inconceivable: selling a car to buy a Kalashnikov, leaving a teaching job to join a militia, abandoning a proud home for a tent by a border fence. Some have discovered themselves as beasts driven by fear or prejudice: torturing children in dungeons, raping women at checkpoints, slitting old men’s throats, and firing artillery, scud missiles and sarin gas at their neighbours.
Many others have revealed unsuspected reserves of compassion, courage and creativity. I’ve met some of these ordinary people. A man, for instance, whose immediate family was annihilated in a bombing who now publishes a newspaper because he believes the right to self-expression is the only important thing left. A man who stays on after his family fled to run a free bakery, without which many would starve. A nurse who serves (unpaid) in field hospitals, the blood never dry on his hands, who hasn’t dared cross a checkpoint to visit his mother in over a year.
“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little,” wrote 19th-century clergyman Sydney Smith. “Do what you can.” Hazar Mahayni is a Syrian-Canadian pharmacist, a widow in late middle age bursting with energy and good cheer. In October 2012, she also became the brains behind the Salam School for refugees in Reyhanli, on the Turkish side of the border.
The school is a rented, one-storey villa with new walls added to make more classrooms, a small olive grove, and even a menagerie containing rabbits, hens and two goats. It serves 1,200 children who crowd the classes in three, three-hour shifts, the youngest first. The demographic stretches from the Damascene bourgeoisie to the poor peasantry, but most are from the rural north, the governorates of Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo.
There are over 700,000 refugees in Turkey, some in camps, others living in towns and cities. Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan’s government has been much more generous than others in the region, allowing Syrians to set up schools, businesses and charities. In Reyhanli, I visited a new orphanage and the Watan wool workshop, which sells knitwear produced by refugee women. Just as they are inside the country, Syrians are organising themselves for survival. In the Salam School, a man interrupted my classes twice to ask, first, which children had no fathers or whose fathers had no work, and second, which children had no gloves.
The last is a necessary question because the Levantine winter is bitterly cold – a dry, bone-deep, biting sort of cold. A winter storm struck while I was there, and children froze to death in the snow-covered camps on the Syrian side. The children in Reyhanli are slightly better off. Depending on their resources, they live in rented houses, rooms, shops or warehouses, often separated from the next family by only a curtain. But most refugees have no school to attend. Very young and ragged children in open-toed sandals beg at the traffic lights.
The Salam School’s children are as noisy, as full of tears and laughter, as children anywhere, but many are traumatised or simply lacking care. In one class, a heavy boy called Abdullah got into three fist fights in the first five minutes. I put him outside for a while, then brought him back and focused some attention on his work. This was enough to make him smile and cooperate.
The school has a warm, humane, and Islamic atmosphere. I witnessed one instance of Muslim obsessive-compulsive disorder, when a small girl leapt to show a teacher a picture she’d drawn of Cinderella. “I’m glad to see you’ve given her a long skirt,” the teacher said in a kindly tone. “But you should have put a scarf on her head too.” Otherwise the environment was open-minded, tolerant and cheerful. One drawback is that everyone (as far as I could see) is a Sunni Muslim – nothing unusual for the rural areas, but city kids used to live in more mixed neighbourhoods. And this isn’t the school’s fault, but the demographics of Assad’s expulsion.
Our days began with revolutionary chants (“The revolutionary generation welcomes you!”) and Quranic recitations. The teachers teach what they can of the Syrian curriculum, stripped of its hagiography of Assad father and son and of the propagandistic “nationalism” subject. Corporal punishment (standard in the old education system) is forbidden, but old habits die hard and it still sometimes occurs. Management and teachers are refreshingly open and honest about these challenges.
Hazar says it’s been difficult to involve the teachers – trained to follow orders in Assad’s system – in collective decision making, but that now they’re making headway. She sees the development of cooperative self-organisation as a revolutionary cultural process every bit as necessary as winning the physical battles.
The staff includes men who have participated in the actual warfare, such as Ustaz Ahmad from Banyas, the coastal city where Assad’s shabeeha militia committed throat-slitting massacres. Ahmad slipped away because he was wanted at checkpoints (“They’re still looking for me,” he laughed. “They think I’m still there...”) and joined the Free Army on Jebel Al Akrad. His group ran out of ammunition and then out of food, so he came to Turkey 20 days before I met him.
Or there was the teacher whose husband was once an officer in the national army. He defected because he didn’t want to murder his neighbours. He was captured. Seven months later, he died under torture. His body was thrown in a mass grave.
Given that the teachers themselves are traumatised and have lost almost everything, it’s remarkable that so many can smile. A teacher called Abdul-Jabbar wins the prize for the most infectious and enchanted smile, something like a flock of birds raising the spirits of all around.
The Karam Foundation’s work at Salam School was its second mission of the year. In the summer, a five-member core delivered workshops in the tented classrooms of Atmeh camp, just inside Syria. This time our numbers were up to 40 volunteers, and included obvious foreigners, and this time Al Qaeda franchises are kidnapping people in the border areas, so Karam decided that, for our safety, we should work on the Turkish side. A series of fortuitous circumstances had established a relationship with the Salam School.
Max Frieder’s Artolution, a public art movement, organised large-scale canvas painting (I saw it done but still couldn’t understand how the hands of hundreds of babbling children created pictures that made coherent sense) while the AptART team involved the children in designing and painting a mural for the school wall. The result was impressive, something every child will remember in future years – an uplifted face on a background of calligraphed phrases (In the name of God the Compassionate the Merciful, Cooperating for a Better Future, Love, Hope, Dignity ...), upraised hands, grinning faces, and the towers and minarets of a cityscape.
There were workshops in football, calligraphy, digital photography, trust games and journal writing. Rory O’Connor, a game inventor, workshopped his wonderful Story Cubes, and left hundreds of these imaginative tools behind to liven Reyhanli’s cold nights. The dental hygiene workshop distributed toothbrushes, while the dental team (all Syrian-Americans) made themselves unpopular by extracting over a hundred teeth daily.
Mine was a storytelling workshop based on the notion that a story needs six things: hero, assistant, problem, secondary obstruction, solution, and conclusion. Among the children’s chosen protagonists were Robin Hood, Batman, my brother the martyr, my father the martyr, and (most often) Sponge Bob. Among the problems to be solved were a dinosaur eating people, a car hitting a pedestrian, my house being shelled, and my cousin stuck in prison.
The activity gave them a way to exercise their fantasy and also to process their real-life stories. And every child has one. When you ask why they came to Turkey, they answer “because Bashaar kept on shelling us”, and then go into specifics. Because we haven’t experienced it, we must imagine here what “shelling” means – not a word in a news story or an element of fantasy-drama but the actual ceiling coming in, a home transformed suddenly into sky cracks and screams. This is what these small children are so matter of fact about, though their eyes flicker and adjust as they speak.
There were stories everywhere I turned. You don’t need a fixer to find victims on the Turkish border, you just ask any man or woman on the street. Even to the last moment, to the cab driver who took me from my friend’s place in Antakya to the airport. Abu Ali was from Lattakia and he happened to know my family. He and his 15-year-old son were arrested together. “They beat my son until he was nearly dead. They beat me until I wished I were dead.” In a cell with 50 others and a hole in the floor as a toilet, which they had to use in front of each other, and nobody was able to wash in the two months Abu Ali was there. Two months of beatings, insults, humiliation, and near starvation. Then father and son were released, for which he thanks God profusely, because “so many die in their prisons”.
This horror has displaced two million outside the country, almost six million inside, and made Syrians the boat people of the decade. While we were there one of our Syrian-American dentists learnt that his nephew had died when the boat he’d hoped would smuggle him to Europe capsized in the winter Mediterranean.
Our work at the Salam School was one drop in a red ocean of suffering that will expand so long as the regime and its backers are permitted to continue their scorched-earth policy. Five thousand more refugees leave Syria every day. It puts me in mind of a less optimistic quote from Henry Thoreau: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”