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Nour, The Syrian Child Refugee I'll Never Forget

A volunteer who led a writing workshop for Syrian child refugees of the war did what he could to offer the aspiring writers some hope. His heart was touched in return.

Syrian children in Turkey's Reyhanli refugee camp
Syrian children in Turkey's Reyhanli refugee camp
Wassim Al-Adel

REYHANLI — It didn't matter which class I was teaching, boys or girls. They all closed their eyes and listened attentively as I played recordings for them of happy sounds from cafes I had visited a month earler in Italy and England.

For the Syrian children in Reyhanli, Turkey, the refugees of a brutal war, I might as well have made the recordings on Mars. They smiled at the strange chatter and the clinking sounds of coffee cups, or the whoosh of a cappuccino machine, and giggled when they heard a woman in Milan laughing out loud. When the recording finished, I asked them to open their eyes and write about what they heard.

One student imagined a piano player in the background and a couple dancing in the middle of the cafe. Others pictured the guests playing chess or backgammon, or casually reading newspapers. Still others imagined plates of cake, tarts and other sweet things to accompany the coffee and tea. A boy asked me inquisitively if England had yerba mate, an Argentinian tea popular in Syria, and I laughed at that. "No" I said, "I doubt very much that they serve yerba mate." The boy's enthusiastic smile faded, so I told him to include that anyway.

There were other exercises I ran during the week I was with the children, but this was the one that lingered with me the most. To these Syrian children, stuck in a town on the Turkish-Syrian border with little hope of returning home and even less hope of being able to settle anywhere, the sounds of normal life in a European city utterly fascinated them, and yet at the same time they must have been both tantalizing and frustrating. Like most young people, many of the children, especially the boys, saw life as something that happens somewhere else.

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Writer Wassim Al-Adel with Syrian children in Reyhanli — Photo: Karam Foundation

I couldn't blame them. Each of those children will soon become young adults, impatient, full of energy and hungry for their share of this world. It's an indifferent world that has closed its doors to them, but they're determined to find it nevertheless.

Writers in the making

On the last day of the workshop I announced the winners of a writing competition that I created, and handed out the prizes: four beautifully bound and expensive journals with matching Parker fountain pens. The children were ecstatic and, like in many competitions, there were some sore losers, but the experience was positive overall. The winners, two boys and two girls, had written truly exceptional entries for my question, "What is Happiness?"

They all clamored for my contact details, and when I landed back in England they overwhelmed me with messages and greetings. Some, especially the boys, were persistent to the point that I was getting annoyed, but then I realized how desperate they were for somebody, anybody, to talk and listen to them. I decided to let each and every one of them know that I was there if they ever needed to talk to me, and I replied to each message that they sent me, even when I was busy.

One evening, Nour, who had won the prize for the seventh grade, messaged me on Facebook. She had a simple question: "What do I need to do to be a good writer?"

"I'll tell you the secret," I said. "The secret is to read and write a lot. Every day."

"Yes, I'll do that," she replied, sending me a massive smiley face emoticon.

"Good," I said, thinking that was the end of that.

"I promise I'll follow your advice. And one day, sir, when you're an old man, keep an eye out for the newspaper that gets dropped at your door. Because I'll have an article in it."

"I hope so. I'm sure you'll be a success," I said, smiling to myself.

"You will remember my name? Won't you? You won't forget about me?" she asked.

"I won't," I replied.


"I promise."

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