The Creativity Hub’s journey with the Karam Foundation began last June after coming across an article in The Huffington Post entitled "Every Child Deserves To Play". Karam runs a wellness programme called “Zeitouna” for Syrian children displaced by the war. After initially deciding the cause was worthy of our annual Christmas donation, Rory was asked to take part in Zeitouna as a mentor.
Rory travelled to Al Salam School on the Turkish/Syrian border in December last year, and decided to return again last month for the summer Zeitouna camp in the town of Reyhanli. The school has 420 pupils in grades 1 to 12. The return to the school saw Rory and the other mentors receive a warm welcome from students and staff alike. As this was the second camp at the school, the teachers were better prepared for the craziness that Zeitouna brings and had their classes prepped for the value the week would bring.Upon asking one teacher, Mahmood, what impact the previous visit had left, he replied that the mentors and workers arrived at the coldest point of the year and helped the children and staff get through it with laughter and play. He also added that the children remained upbeat and more engaged after the volunteers left. Mahmood welcomed the return, as he and his fellow teachers were desperate for tips and advice on teaching in their unique environment. For these young students from a war torn environment, the normal teaching methods don’t apply.
Over 30 mentors arrived at the school for a week of various workshops, joined by translators and dental, hygiene and trauma teams. One author, who wrote a book on the experience of a child in Syria, asked the children how it made them feel and could they relate. She found that these children read a lot more into the story than she had previously experienced. One child pointed out an illustration of a boy sitting in a dark corner and said he was in prison, which was what the writer was trying to convey.
The classes and workshops gave students a chance to experience a wide range of activities. The children took part in an architecture class where they drew out floor plans of the homes they left behind in Syria. A quilting workshop produced quilts to be sold back in the US to raise funds for the foundation. Journalling gave the children an opportunity to record their voices and stories, while pinhole photography allowed the children to see output of their efforts after a few hours. Sport was also a major part of the week, with boxercise, soccer and basketball taking place.
Rory delivered 18 sessions of storytelling workshops over his four days at Zeitouna, working closely with translators. He would introduce himself as being from Ireland, asking the class did they know where that was. He pulled out a map and showed them how far away his country was, and how far he had come to tell stories with them. He pointed out that he made games for a living and asked what their favourite games were. There were shouts of Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty in nearly every workshop. It’s important to realise that these children do not come from poor backgrounds, most come from previously middle class homes that they had to leave because of the war.
Rory would explain Rory's Story Cubes and then tell an over the top story so that the children could try to understand without relying on the translator. Splitting up into groups, they were challenged to come up with their own story and tell it to the class. The younger age groups drew their stories. They used Storysheets to record their stories, or take down the icons to make a story at home if the workshop ran out of time. The students were initially embarrassed to tell their story to the class, but it was made a point of in each class. These are children who are not seen or heard often, so within their peer group they were now able to stand up and tell their stories, mostly of good over evil. One boy delivered a particularly poignant story of a man who had lost his ID card and needed to travel back over the border to Syria to get it, but knew he could not because he would be shot.
Along with the positive changes in the children, the school itself had also experienced some changes. Work had begun on the badly needed second floor of the school building, security cameras had been installed and teachers now had the use of projectors in their classrooms.
Even with all the good going on with the school and the children, Rory also experienced some sad conversations. In chatting with a group of grade 12 girls, they revealed that after they finished their final exams there was nowhere else for them to go. To continue their education in a Turkish school, they would have to undergo 2 to 3 months of Turkish language lessons which most families cannot afford. Alternatively, they had the option to travel abroad for school, but again this was even more expensive. It was sad to see that the generation that can rebuild Syria are already falling through the cracks.
In the children’s chaotic environment, the teachers and administration staff try to maintain normality in school. However, it is difficult to achieve this and learn when both the students and teachers are traumatised. One teacher witnessed 20 of his students in Syria die in a chemical weapons attack. These teachers are trying to use their conventional methods to teach in an environment where life is erratic and uncertain. In most of Rory’s morning workshops of five and six year olds, there was someone falling asleep at their desks. Other students have missed one to two years of education due to the war. The staff are striving to find different ways to teach, and so help both teachers and students to become learners.
At the school, the children were a mix between highly engaged and relatively withdrawn. Rory was struck by the willingness of most to engage with strangers and share their limited food. Even though the volunteers were warned not to eat anything, he accepted plums and used them to teach juggling. At one point the water supply went down and Rory and the volunteers shared whatever water they had with the children, as all they had was carried in their small bags.
These children come from a mix of homes. Some lived in houses or apartments, while others lived in old shop fronts with shutters. Most had lost family member, siblings or parents and are still persevering. They are a testament to adaptability, but that is not a justification for this all to keep going. In one conversation with a boy, Rory asked him about his family and his home. He said he had four brothers, one who was fighting in the war. With his home, he can remember it but can’t remember the details like where the living room and kitchen were.
One girl received a set of Rory’s Story Cubes during the winter Zeitouna and had been using them ever since. She used them for drawing and telling stories and they helped her to get ideas and use her imagination. She plans to write a story about her experience that adults will read, so that they can feel and understand what it’s like for Syrians. Rory asked her is she could say anything to children in Ireland what would it be. She replied, “I hate Reyhanli and I want to go home.”
The trip left us with questions on how we can be most useful with the skills we have. Teachers in Al Salam school need more ways to teach with Rory’s Story Cubes and tips on how to get the best use out of the resources they have. Before Rory left for Reyhanli, we posted on social media asking for any advice our followers may have for the teachers. Teachers in the school immediately went home and looked up the links and YouTube videos that came in response.
The purpose of Rory’s volunteering and the Zeitouna camp was to bring a glimmer of hope and joy into the children’s and teacher’s life for that short time. They left them confident in the memory that others around the world care.