“Is there war where you live?” Syrian and American middle school students open up on a live webcast
“I want to ask ‘what games do you play? What do you do at school? Are you safe?’” Abir and Amani are 11-year-old Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. They are preparing for a big event: a live webcast with 4 American students in a class in New Jersey.
The best friends giggle and look over each other’s shoulders as they write questions in their new notebooks. They attend second grade in an International Rescue Committee Healing Classroom, a brightly decorated tent amidst a cluster of shelters where 40 Syrian families live and tend livestock in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Ten minutes away in a nearby Lebanese town, Muhammad and Aya, 2 other Syrian students in IRC Healing Classrooms, are also busy preparing for the webcast.
“What should we ask the American students?”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” offers Muhammad, 13. “Is there war where you live?” says Aya, writing down the sobering question. Only 11 years old, Aya has already fled twice with her family – once within Syria, and then finally to Lebanon – to escape airstrikes and kidnappings.
On April 21, the 4 young Syrians met Earnest, Aureja, Hannah, and Aura – students at Attales Middle School in New Jersey - on a live webcast for the Students Rebuild Healing Classrooms Challenge. The campaign has rallied thousands of students to learn about Syrian youth and raise money for refugee education by making pinwheels - symbols of friendship decorated with stickers and notes of solidarity.
After weeks of Challenge events and preparation, the 8 students finally logged on to meet for the first time. The discussion quickly moved from easy topics to some tough subjects.
“I had to leave my childhood home, and I’ve been separated from family that I love. How did you feel when you left Syria?” ventured Hannah, 13.
The webcast moderator handed Abir the microphone. “In Syria, I had 2 best friends,” she said. “One day, we left school as usual and said to each other ‘see you tomorrow!’ But then an airstrike hit our school. I ran home, but didn’t find my family; they had gone to my cousin’s house to escape the bombs. My father said, ‘We have to leave and go to Lebanon.’ I cried. I felt so sad, and I still do.”
Aura, 13, was next. “I know where my family is; I know that they are safe. I see on the news the violence in Syria. I know that many Syrians who left still have family there. How do you feel about this?”
Holding her pink pinwheel, Aya answered, “I am so sad about what’s happening. There are so many Syrians without enough food, or water, or even clothes to wear. In America, do you live in a safe community? Are there conflicts?”
Aura responded. “I don’t think there are conflicts big enough to drive families out of their homes, but discrimination is a big issue, whether it’s about race, religion, or gender. That’s our biggest issue I think.”
The conversation turned to the future. “When I grow up, I want to go to college to be a mechanic,” said Earnest, also 13. “What do you want to be? How can education help you accomplish your dreams?”
Abir eagerly took the microphone. “Education helps us build our future. When I grow up, I want to be an architect and build homes. The new [Syrian] generation needs to be united so that we can build our community.”
Muhammad, a science buff who loves to take apart and rebuild motors, chimed in. “I want to be an inventor, and my studies in science will help.”
In less than an hour, the youth made a lasting connection as hundreds of viewers tuned in to the live exchange. “I’m so happy that you have education [in Lebanon],” said Aura to her new Syrian friends. “Education is power. Not just knowing 2 plus 2, but how to handle situations that life brings you. I want you to never lose hope.”
Aya stepped up to the camera: “Thank you so much for all the work you’ve done with the Challenge. We are friends from now on, and I invite you to visit us in Lebanon.”
Success! Students and teachers celebrated after the webcast. Parents of the Syrian students - many of whom cannot read or write – were proud of their kids’ achievement, and eager to watch the webcast video. “I do not want my children to think about the past,” said Abir’s father. “I want them to move forward here in Lebanon.”
The Students Rebuild Healing Classrooms Challenge, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee and Global Nomads Group helped Syrian youth from conflict areas recover from crisis and grow into happy, healthy adults. The Bezos Family Foundation matched every pinwheel you made and mailed in with $2--up to $400,000--to support IRC's Healing Classrooms program.