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Biladi "Syria In My Mind" Project

By Venetia Rainey

It's a sizzling hot summer day, and more than 200 refugee children are seated under trees, excitedly pouring over maps of their homeland, Syria. Equipped with cut-out pictures of the ancient ruins of Palmyra and the waterwheels - or Norias - of Hama, they are being given a chance to learn that Syria's towns and cities are not just places of war, violence and misery, but sites of heritage, history and beauty.


Through picture-based games and physical activities designed by a game specialist and an education expert, the children are able to develop a sense of pride for Syria, rather than defining it by the civil war that has upturned their lives.

Syria In My Mind was run as a one-day programme for around 1,200 children last year by the Lebanese NGO Biladi and the Italian organization AVSI, with funding from 

UNICEF through the European Union, Kuwait, Germany, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. It was so popular that a four-day workshop was developed this year, catering to some 2,000 children.

"We are trying to re-create a link between the home they cherish and the Syria they have experienced," explains Biladi's head , Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly. "It has to be a land of peace not a land of war in their mind."

 To do this, Biladi - an organization dedicated to promoting cultural and natural heritage among young people - spent three months researching and developing the programme. There were several challenges: many of the refugee kids have been out of school for years and don't know how to read or write, some have behavioural problems or learning difficulties, and nearly all have seen or experienced traumatic events in Syria.

 

To teach the children, they trained people  from a Syrian NGO called Syrian Eyes, so that they could learn from fellow Syrians who were personally connected with the history and sites they would study. Over the course of nine days, Biladi worked with their Syrian Eyes recruits on everything from Syrian geography and archaeology to child rights and ways to transform a game into a learning experience.

 

"This was the challenge," says Farchakh Bajjaly. "How do you let them play and have fun while learning?"

In the end, Biladi and the Syrian Eyes team came up with a range of tailored activities that merged education and playtime: a hopscotch made out of places in Syria, Syrian heritage bingo, site-specific puzzles, custom-made wooden building blocks to re-create places like the Krak du Chevalier castle, a huge floor map of Syria, and a number of catchy songs - to name just a few. A psychotherapist was also hired to be on hand to deal with issues that arose as children contemplated the role of Syria in their lives

"It's about giving the kids back their country, their dignity, their heritage, a positive image of their country," says Farchakh Bajjaly. "We want them to appropriate their country, which the war and their refugee status has taken away from them. I'm a child of war, so I know what it's like."

"During the programme they learn about geography, landscape, vegetation, animals. They've forgotten what Syria looks like, now they only think of war. So we show them the other things."

For Mohamed Ibrahim, one of the monitors trained by Biladi, the importance of such work is clear: "We always ask them a question before we start the exercise: what does Syria mean to you? Most of the answers are rather sad ones. I mean there is always a feeling of nostalgia and misery for Syria, which they left."

But even over the course of a day, children can learn things that permanently change the way they regard their home country. Another monitor, Marcelle Suleiman, says that one of the children told her: "We came from war and you reminded us of Syria before the war." "For us these words were enough," she adds with a smile.

Culture may not be a basic necessity like food or water, but Farchakh Bajjaly is adamant that it is crucial. "Giving them their culture you are expanding their horizon and showing them that they are not just a person who needs to be fed and dressed," she says. "We wanted to show them how much heritage they are carrying with them and give them back their self-esteem," she adds. "And as they hear it they sit differently, they raise their heads more."

These days, however, no one is quite certain what will be left of Syria's heritage once the war is over, with numerous ancient sites having sustained heavy damage. With a smile, Farchakh Bajjaly admits that there is another, secondary aim that she hopes the programme will fulfil in the long-term.

"To tell them about these sites, despite the fact that they are disappearing - it is a form of resistance," she says. "Even if they bomb Palmyra, these kids know about it now, they know it exists, you cannot unlearn this. We want them to be proud of their country, but hopefully they will help to rebuild it. You never know."

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