SARAQEB — Zaytoun and Zaytouna relies on games, stories and illustrations to make life in Syria's war zone a bit more bearable for kids. Launched in July 2013, the four-page magazine started as a modest project with a team of three people using a small printer and circulating it to a limited number of children.
Today, says magazine director Sumar Kanjo, the team includes over 10 writers and 10 illustrators, and Zaytoun and Zaytouna has become a cultural pillar in Saraqeb and other areas under opposition control. In addition to the paper edition, the magazine is launching a website and a Facebook page.
The magazine covers subjects such as entertainment, culture, poetry, illustrated stories and English-language learning. It also includes games, drawings and stories created by children. The only restriction on content is one that Kanjo set out from the start: no politics and no religion.
The magazine targets children ages of six to 16, with an effort to provide a kind of therapy through media content.
"We need education experts and psychologists specializing in working with children," Kanjo says. "We are trying to find them."
The team working on the magazine is spread across Syria, with some staff members based abroad. The work itself has left a positive mark on the team. "The magazine has given me a way to reach Syria's children," says illustrator Jubran Jubran. "I feel happy when I write or illustrate for them. I transcend reality to reach a child-like state."
Food for the mind
Umm Saeed, a resident of Saraqeb, says that the magazine has become popular with her son and the neighborhood kids. "My son learned many English words from the pictures and the educational model they present, as well as the stories I read to him from the magazine," she says.
But Saraqeb resident Abu Jamil criticizes the magazine's exclusively secular tone. "I wish they would include more about the Quran and the prophetic sayings," he says. "I wish it would focus on instilling Islamic values, morals and traditions within our children, especially since Islam is systematically coming under attack."
The magazine initially relied on individual donations but now receives grant funding from Europe. It still faces circulation difficulties because of the country's security situation and the constant aerial bombardment. But despite the obstacles, Kanjo is hoping to turn the magazine into a publishing house and is interested in adding film and song production to their range of work. There are also plans to create mobile apps for children, such as educational games and entertainment.
At a time when most Syrians are struggling to make ends meet and stay safe, developing a children's magazine could seem like an extravagance. But Kanjo insists that exercising children's minds and souls is no less important than providing food.
"Children need everything: milk, food, medicine, playing and learning. We all must do whatever we can for their best interests."