ON A LIGHTER NOTE, BITS AND PIECES FROM THE LAST WEEK OF THE MEDIA WORKSHOP (NEXT BLOG: WORK FROM THE FINAL SHOW):
A page from the notebook of Rehab, 14:
I would like to dedicate another poem to Laura and Tasneem.
If I wasn’t infected with bird flu,
I would have sent you a kiss with the birds.
A few pages from the notebook of Marwah, 18, who just learned to read and write this year:
Photos from the last roll of Balqees, 16, who took 625 photos in her last 2 days:
The Khaldiya camera move:
Photographs from Sharook
Khaldiya, 17, lives in Za’atari, where she helps her mother take care of her 7 younger brothers and sisters. Her father recently left the family to fight in Syria after the youngest child was born. Below is the first video Khaldiya shot for the girls’ media workshop and some writing from her notebook.
I am a girl who has a lot of questions to ask. But she will never find an answer for even one question. I am a girl who has been tortured in childhood and is still being tortured. I am a girl who strives to gain everybody’s love. I am a girl who respected the kindness of parents. I am a girl whose eyes don’t stop crying except sometimes. I am a girl who is looking for a job so she can collect bad money and not take it from someone who deserves it.
I am. Who am I? I am a bird that’s looking for twigs so she can build a nest that can protect her and shelter her. I am a girl who is looking for somebody who can understand her and be loyal to her and answer all of her questions. I am a girl who has been let down by the people she loves. I am a girl looking for a heart that beats for her and feels her pains and sorrows.
Marwah, 17, returned to school this year, after 3 years out of school, to learn to read and write. She stood up to her father to go back to school. She was crowned Queen of Education by Save the Children activity center. She and her teacher try to get girls who are like her to go back to school.
She is learning to write, and below is some writing from her notebook, and part of a transcript from the first time we met her and she told us her story.
Don’t put limits to your imagination. Dreams and then dreams.
Then dream because one day the skies have to rain. Dreams are light and blessings. I am:
There is nothing that can make you miss the train because every train has its way back:
I am, I am dreams.
With education learn with pride and excitement. I am, I am. I always smile on Sundays. The wisdom of Sunday is that if you are suffocated from the world, don’t tell anybody. Because nobody can help anybody. Complain about your worries to the one and only. Oh kindest heart, I hope God makes you happy, because you are my only one.
Syria is wonderful, but to me it wasn’t good at all because there wasn’t anyone interested in us or who even felt the need to teach us…
I passed 7th grade and then stopped. I was around 14 years old. I told my mom that I wanted to stop reading because I didn’t learn or understand anything from it. I would always think about the future, the very far future, what happened with my life. Either I would stay as I am or try to go back to reading. I would think far away into the future, I would think and think until it was only about household chores and being able to secure my own home.
I tried a lot here (Zaatari) and they (staff at Save the Children activity center) tried to help me go to school but I didn’t listen to them... Even my mom would always encourage me to continue with my reading, but I wouldn’t listen
I used to see a teacher coming and going, reading with my sister. So I asked my sister how it was with her, and she said that she works with you from zero. She teaches you how to read and write from the very start and helps you with everything. I told my sister to tell her that I want to be taught as well and learn how to read. I decided to do this when Razan and Sarah (activity center staff) were away... I wanted to do something for them. I wanted them to come back to the center and see something that would let them hold their head up high with pride from the girls themselves, and so I set my mind to it.
My sister told her (the teacher), and she asked me if I wanted to, and I said yes. But at the time my dad was refusing the notion. I brought my mom in with me then. I said I wanted to read, and he said you didn’t care to learn to read or write in Syria, and you want to do it now? I replied I want to learn because I am thinking about my future. Otherwise it’s all for no reason, and no one will help me, not my father or my mother. I said all of this with force and complete conviction and courage. I put courage in my heart and stood my ground. My dad got angry a little bit, but I didn’t back down. He calmed down after. I said again that I want to think about my own future, you can’t help me always, and I want to read…
Now sometimes I become nervous walking to the board to answer questions. I make it a challenge between me and the fear. To overcome it and not let it come between me and my studies. I should be able to go up to the board without any fear or crying. I have to be strong and up for the challenge so I don’t get upset when the girls laugh at me when I don’t know how to answer a question. No, I have to be stronger than this and not allow anyone to laugh at me.
I feel like where ever I go, people say that you are lovable, you are lovable. Sometimes I say why am I so lovable? I don’t have anything in me to let people love me. Sometimes I hate myself.
But the best moment of my life was when I went back to school, and suddenly I came here (the activity center) and a lot of people were happy with me. I felt like my heart would explode from happiness… When I knew it was me, I was very frightened at first and I wanted to hide between the girls. I didn’t think that the girls would accept that I would be the Queen of Education. When they put the crown on my head I felt then that I was a role model for the girls and that I had put up a challenge for me and my education.
I would like to give advice for the parents. I want to advise the mothers who don’t have any ambitions for their girls, only for something like cleaning. For example, if a mother is illiterate and doesn’t want to teach her child how to read and she just wants her to be able to cook and clean a house. Even the fathers. Some of them have hearts made of rock and they are very harsh on their girls. They forbid them to go outside to join schools and centers.
Yesterday I was bothered. There’s this girl who is with me in the class, and her father recently refused to let her study anymore. I started to say things that I didn’t like to say but I had to say them just because I wanted the girl to get her education and to keep reading. It bothered me more than it bothered the girl. I was thinking about her all yesterday trying to find a solution but I couldn’t think of anything. Even though we (Marwah and her teacher) were able to convince a lot of girls (to go to school).
(advice to girls not in school) To be able to change. And to those who have a weak heart to become courageous and have a brave heart and be strong. Not to be afraid of education, to break the fear and nerves she has in her heart.
I finally recognized the meaning of: education is light and ignorance is darkness. If you put forth the effort, you will find the result, and if you walk the path, you will reach what you want.=
A couple of days ago, before our media workshop at Za’atari, one of the girls came up to Tasneem, my translator, and I and pulled out her phone. Wafaa scrolled down to a video of her brother, aged 20, filmed soon after his death. His body lay flat and straightened on the floor, with white, blood-stained cloths wrapped around the wounds that trailed down his body. Eyes closed, hands by his side, peaceful. He was killed a year and a half ago in their hometown in Daraa province. With an unbreakable smile, Wafaa told us that even though she misses him a lot, she is proud of the way he died, fighting for their freedom. *
I visit occasionally a Syrian family in east Amman, five children taken care of by their extra-ordinary father. Balqees, the 8-year old girl, and I have a routine of drawing pictures together towards the end of the night. Last night she nestled beside me and turned over a piece of paper. She drew a half moon, belly up, and said, “This is a hospital, okay?” Okay. “Do you understand?” Yes. She then drew a small triangle on top of the half moon. “This is a boy, and he is 6 years old.” Okay, I said. She drew another small triangle and placed it again on the curve of the moon, next to the first one. “The boy has a hurt leg, and it is bloody,” she said. Okay. As she built the story shape by shape, it became clear that she was telling the story of her younger brother getting shot in the leg back in Syria. By the end of her story, the shapes formed a picture of a mouse, and underneath she wrote with newly learned letters: m-o-u-s-e. Balqees looked up from the paper, beaming, and exclaimed, “Mouse!”
A few minutes later, a bouquet of fireworks shot into the air outside of their apartment. Fireworks sound off frequently in Amman. With the first boom and crackle, the middle daughter Semah, who is 12, ran across the room and quietly bunched up beside her father. Her older sister, brother and uncle told her these were just games outside, and light-heartedly poked fun at her as they continued on with what they were doing. Semah did not soften. She periodically lifted her head from her knees to look at the floor until another round fired off. After a few minutes, her father pulled Semah up and they left the room. I asked where they were going, and her sister said every time this happens, her father takes her outside to look at the fireworks. It was clear this had been going on with Semah for a while, probably since they arrived in Amman over a year ago.
I wondered, of course, why the other children, two of them including Balqees younger than Semah, did not seem phased by the fireworks. On my way home, I kept thinking about the ways in which Wafaa and Balqees shared these difficult pieces of their stories. And I wondered if Wafaa and Balqees had, to a certain extent, found ways to rework the tangles and hard truths of their last moments in Syria. I thought about girls I have worked with in the past, each of whom I met at their own point in the continuum of this process. Before sharing her story with any kind of ease, there is a lot of work creating for herself her own narrative. It is the work of recounting, reshaping, and retelling a story that she can sit with. A story that will eventually let her recognize the sound of fireworks as the sound of fireworks, or as something else the imagination can hold.
* The names of the girls have been changed.
WORK: Photos by Marah
Poet #1: DOAA
Poet #2: SENAA
Sunrise at Za'atari with Walaa:
Do you need anything more beautiful than this view? The sunset in the town of Za’atari. The sun sets and everything else sets down with it – until we come to a new story. A new day that shines with its stars and planets and its spectacular sun…
The sun rises and everything rises with it so we could start with a new day, with a new life and new dreams. As the sun rises it calls to the whole world to get up and to each individual to go to work.
But, have you ever wondered what’s behind the sun?
by Syrian poet Omar Al-Farra
Read by Om Mohammad on Mother's Day at Camp Za'atari
first, write my greetings; second, write my love.
and write … 9 months ... I carried you inside… inside my womb
9 months … and you were my hearts’ neighbor ...
As you grew, I grew
And I felt the world around me become bigger (vast)
9 months ... and I get up at night … in the middle of the night
I wake up at dawn and pray:
Lord do not disappoint me ... Lord do not torment (torture) me (or do not make me suffer)
Lord have mercy on me ... Lord send me my loved one
So I can raise him with my tears
And vow with every letter of your name to the Lord
I have never felt in my life longer than these 9 months
And I see you in my dreams ... walking
On my soul ... on my eye lashes (it means he is very dear to her)
I see you carrying me to my grave
I see you reading your books
I see you leader of your friends
I see you strutting like Antar (antar is a name used to refer to a mischievous/smart/popular boy)
No not like Antar
You are greater and more handsome
You are just like a full moon
You, when your voice is heard the world listens
I wake up from a sweet dream with a touch of kindness from you
And I feel you leaning towards my soul playfully
I soar with happiness when you tease me
You know what?
I don’t know how I can visualize it
and I bet you that there will be no man who can feel the ecstasy of prenancy
Even the thrill of being pregnant; when the heart of the fetus flutters
Tonight I thought
I will send you your mothers’ love
Love that flowed through your veins
and then became your own
Maybe you will talk to me
so I can lessen the burden of distance
If it were in my hands .. I would plant yearning in your eyes.
Maybe you will remember your mother
Come next to me
Come next to me
Missing you has been torture
I love your eyes, I love your soul, I love your heart
Come next to me
Because you see, tonight I am missing you.
Just like a camel crying for losing her son.
In the end,
Every ones’ eyes has someone to love.
And once we were done from writing the letter
She took it from me and held it near her heart
then kissed each side of it and threw it to the whirling winds so it could take it;
Tonight it will reach him
And so she sobbed
And when she left they said to me:
a poor women; she was infertile
Never was she pregnant
And never has she given birth.
Today was the anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian Revolution. Sawra.
I knew the girls at Save the Children’s multi-activity center (MAC) would be rehearsing their song for the commemoration event in the evening. I brought my audio recorder and asked if I could record them while they practiced. They said yes, of course, but when I slipped out the recorder as they sang, some looked at it with apprehension. When this happens it’s nice to give the girls the equipment so they can experience and use it themselves. I passed the headphones to one girl and the microphone to another. The girl slid on the headphones and her face opened, eyes wide, sudden smile. She pressed the headphone cups to her ears, to isolate the sound more, and each sound evoked a new exhilarated expression. Girl after girl grabbed the headphones and slipped them on, and the same smiles broke open. It was something of a discovery. To hear their own voices, magnified.
The girls with the microphone excitedly thrust it up to their friends asking questions, so many questions, or making requests that transformed their friends into theatrical characters. Some of the girls who had been so quiet and reserved became completely new beings once the microphone was in their hands. It was these girls who held on to the microphone tightest.
None of the girls I was with throughout the day acknowledged or talked about the significance of the day. I think for many of us on the outside it feels momentous, a time to pause and feel something deep in ourselves for the circumstances of these girls, these children, these families in Za’atari. It’s also a time and the stage to beg of the world a surge of sympathy that might hopefully motivate some kind of serious action. But for the girls, this day is like any other. Not a day goes by that doesn’t feel alternatively momentous and in-momentous. They feel what is missed and the missing, they feel the danger for their families still living or fighting in Syria, and they feel the heavy, muddy feeling of in-action. Nothing changing in their country, and nothing changing about their situation as refugees in this camp.
Many of the girls couldn’t participate in the event this evening because their families expect them home when the MAC’s programming ends, at 2pm. I ask the girls sometimes what they did over the weekend, or when they went home the day before, and they say nothing. They slept, cooked and ate. They stay in their tents or caravans. Outside of the activity center, a 2-hour slice of their weekdays, and few hours of morning school, life is pretty still.
One thing different about this night of commemoration is the bus, movement, traveling out of their routine. I joined the girls in the back seat of the bus, who had put on thick layers of mascara and shimmery lipstick, fresh coats of deep-pink nail polish. Tonight was a night out. The girl next to me slid a chipped piece of mirror from her pocket and passed it down the aisle of girls eager to smooth one last time the evenness of their lipstick, the folds of their hijabs. As the bus wove its way through the crowded market street, all of the window curtains were swept to the side while girls leaned out to look down at the street scenes below. I wasn’t sure if it was an area of camp they had not traveled or if they were just seeing things from a different vantage point, through the elevated bus window frames, or a different time of day, early evening. Each scene we passed gave rise to wells of laughter or quiet observation.
When we pulled in to the event area, the tireless Razan (the lead counselor at the girls MAC), cranked up some pop music on the radio to ease the increasingly nervous singers. The girls were relieved temporarily from their jitters, but once they stepped out into the spotlight, they became nervous again. This was clearly a media event, a call to action publicity campaign by Save the Children, and about 20 cameras, including my own, were pointedly pointed in their direction. I winked at a few individual girls, trying to be a warmer lens and provoke a smile. A few caught the wink but most were frozen stiff with anticipation. The country director walked down the line of girls and said a few things that melted some into laughter as she lightly slipped down the backpacks from some of their shoulders.
I had heard about this event all week, and had been expecting thousands of camp residents to be there. When we arrived and filed into the large event tent, aside from the youth singing the song on one side, and the children holding red balloons for release at the count of three on the other, the remainder of people in the tent were the children and youth officers (counselors), a slew of media people, some Save the Children officials, and what seemed to be some special visitors.
The music began and the girls and boys warmed up and then knocked the house, or the tent, down with their explosive voices. My homeland, Oh my homeland, Majesty and beauty, Dignity and glory, Are present in your hills, in your hills, Will I see you some day, will I see you, safe, wealthy, victorious and honorable? Some day will I see your ascending glory, shinning and reaching the brightest star? My homeland, Oh my homeland…
The moments I remember most are the time spent one-on-one with girls. This week in particular, I remember individual hands.
Marwa’s hands, drawing, always drawing, the sound of her hand sweeping across the paper’s surface.
Baraa’s hands, soft and ruddy, soaked orange with henna. Passing her the camera and wondering if it would turn the orange of her hands. Her hands in love with the focus ring, back and forth, back and forth.
Inas’ hands, I can see them best. She is young and has had an eventful past few months. I love to sit beside her, she has a calming and comfortable presence. Her left hand is stacked with golden rings, and I always follow them when she is talking or trying to describe something by drawing in the air. I can see Inas’ gold-ringed fingers eating Cheetos slow on the blacktop, while girls kick soccer balls around her. She likes to teach me Arabic words. When she finishes the bag, she holds up three of four fingers. Talaata. Three months married. She runs her fingers over imaginary mountains. Jebel, she says. She holds two golden fingers up: tneen. Two months pregnant. And then two fingers down, towards her belly: twins. She points to the sun and we squint up, shams. At one point she raises both hands, one golden, one not, and starts shooting imaginary rifles into the air. Qaatel. Her husband went back to Syria to fight. She shrugs and drops her hands to her lap. Finally, moments later, I follow her arm to her pointed finger to the vast bluetop of sky. Semeh.
* girls names have been changed for the blog
Weeks 3 & 4, a flurry of education working group meetings with NGOs punctuated by an interesting conference today on Child Labor. Though we missed the first presentation of the conference, which was on Homebound Girls, I was able to participate in an animated break-out session with the Homebound Girls focus group. Our mission was to formulate recommendations that addressed:
a. What can be done to enforce the law that states that education is compulsory up to the age of 16 (a law that is routinely overruled by the decision of a parent to withdraw girls early from school to stay and work at home), and
b. As Homebound Girls are subject to the same (if not more) hazards as other domestic workers, should they be included in the child labor definition so that this form of labor can be addressed through the National Framework.
Aside from the three participants in the group who were huddled in the English-translation corner, the rest of the individuals from various NGOs were from the region. There were a multitude of approaches regarding the enforcement of the compulsory education law. Many supported the need for deterrent legislation, specifically imposing a high fine on parents who withdraw their children from school, a fine that would surpass the financial benefits of keeping the girl at home to work. Others additionally suggested that the Ministries of Education, Islamic Affairs and Media work together to advocate for keeping girls in school. The importance of working with community leaders, especially religious leaders, to advocate for girls to remain in school was emphasized, particularly in the more remote areas of the country. A number of participants suggested that the school intervene before the Ministry of Education gets involved through meetings with the parents.
One of the most problematic barriers identified is that a girl is not considered a drop-out until a minimum of three months have passed from the date she leaves school.
Regarding including Homebound Girls in the child labor definition, we nearly unanimously agreed that this was the best immediate option for ensuring the girls’ protection as well as raising awareness about Homebound Girls and their rights to education. One woman said that it was the female’s duty to provide domestic services, and that including this labor as a form of child labor was problematic. This began a heated discussion about culturally and religiously rooted notions about the female and her domestic role. One woman said that girls are simply unaware that it is not their duty any more than it is a boy’s to provide domestic services because this is seen as a cultural given. The discussion also highlighted the isolated condition of Homebound Girls and the resulting psychological impacts (in comparison to say boys working outside of the home with other boys their age).
On the drive back to the office, one of my co-workers said that discussing the situation of Homebound Girls is such a sensitive topic, it has not actually been addressed formally nor had it’s own dedicated study until this conference. She seemed thrilled and somehow relieved that this issue has finally been given voice.
This past month I have been primarily attending meetings regarding a regional response report that will result from a nation-wide survey and assessment of Syrian children and their access to quality education in Jordan (both in refugee camps and host communities). The information I have gathered should provide some good foundational knowledge for the work I hope to begin with girls in Za’atari in the next week or two.
Next time around, flurries of stories from the field, inshallah…
Until then, check out these young photographers in different regions of Syria, recording their daily life. Pretty astounding and revealing work…