Syrian refugee children have to deal with adult responsibilities unlike children who play, socialize, and explore in a worry-free life. Despite all the heartache and suffering they have faced, they still hope for the time when they can go back home and resume their childhood
I had the good fortune to spend my childhood in the wonderful countryside of Ontario, Canada surrounded by trees, open space and rolling green fields as far as the eye could see. My friends and I enjoyed the freedom to wander around, explore and play and dabble in streams, only occasionally getting lost in cornfields . My childhood memories could not be any sweeter. Often referred to, as "the good old days," it is a time that almost anyone would love to travel back to – a worry-free world.
After all, childhood is a time of playing, learning, socializing and exploring. It is a time of learning about responsibilities without having to deal with adult responsibilities. Well, at least that is what I have always thought. Today, I find it hard to believe that I am halfway across the world and have sat in the home of a Syrian refugee family in Kilis.
My husband is Turkish and we now live in Istanbul. Recently, I had visited Kilis, a southeastern province near the Syrian border, where my in-laws live. Kilis is one of the provinces that has received the most refugee families escaping from the disastrous tragedy in Syria.
This is where I met Ala, a young Syrian girl. She made me reflect on the differences of two worlds - that of the lucky and of the unfortunate. Ala is a bright and pleasant 12-year-old girl, who has developed a friendship with my in-laws and occasionally comes over to their house to visit.
During my stay, Ala came over for a visit. We sat in the living room, toys scattered all over the floor for my sister-in-law's daughter and son to play with, as they had also come down from Istanbul to visit her parents in Kilis.
I noticed how drawn Ala was to the children, and how she immediately went to play with them. She sat on the floor with the children, building castles out of blocks, smiling and laughing. She spoke Arabic, with a little bit of Turkish she had recently learned at school. But she was not shy to communicate with me, nor with the kids.
She came to visit often that week, and stayed for the weekend. Keeping the children busy, helping out around the house and eagerly wanting to learn the English words that I was teaching my sister-in-law's two kids.
One night I asked her, "Ala, how long have you been here in Turkey?" That is when she told me her story that I had consciously avoided asking about until then.
Ala came to Turkey three years ago. Her family, which includes her parents and eight brothers and sisters ranging from one year old to 15-years-old, needed to escape the distressing events that continue to take place in Syria. With such a large family, her mother made the decision to send Ala with her two younger sisters to Gaziantep, not knowing if she would ever see them again. There, Ala looked after and cared for her two younger sisters. She had no way of contacting her family; the three girls were lost and alone.*
Three years later, a friend accidentally came across Ala's family in Kilis. Months later, she was reunited with the family that she had lost and thought she would never see again. Her oldest sisters, a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old, were now married, and her mother was carrying a new baby.
I did not ask many questions in order to spare Ala remembering heartbreaking moments, and we continued playing with the children.
The weekend was coming to an end and Ala needed to return to her home so she could go to school the next day. I could see in her eyes that she did not want to leave. She invited me to come with her to her home and meet her family. I gladly accepted the kind invitation, and we made our way to downtown Kilis, where her family was now living.
This is when everything became so much clearer.
As the car pulled up to a narrow alley, we got out and I followed Ala. She led me down a narrow lane. It was cold and wet, and at that point I realized that we were going somewhere different from what I had expected or ever experienced before.
We entered a courtyard and walked up to a small, rundown building. There was no door, just a small thin blanket hanging over the entrance to the home. I took off my shoes and stepped through the entrance into the home. There in front of me were seven small children and their mother sitting on the floor of the tiny one-room home.
It was an empty space, simply four walls. It did not even seem to have running water. It was only a cold stone room, with some cushions on the floor and a coal stove.
A wave of disquiet came over me. What had I been expecting? I did not know what to expect. After all, growing up in Canada, I had not been exposed to anything like this before. I smiled and said hello as each person came rushing to greet me. We sat down all together and tried to communicate to each other with our different languages.
Ala prepared Turkish coffee, which I assume she had learned to make in Kilis, and served it to me. I accepted it gratefully and noticed that everyone was smiling, with a warm look in their eyes that could have melted the snow in Canada. They were so humble, kind and inviting. Suddenly, that cold stone room became warm. Three of the children were very sick and I tried to laugh and play along with the rest of the children. After all, it does not take long to connect with people who can appreciate life even when they have had everything taken away from them. They were so full of life despite the tragedy that marked them; losing all they had in their homes back in Syria.
When I returned home, I realized why Ala liked spending so much time with my family and why she was so drawn to playing with the toys and the children. Like the rest of the Syrian children, she had her childhood, in addition to her family and everything they had there, taken away from her. Ala was finding her childhood that she had lost under the ruins of the bomb blasts. She had left her childhood behind and moved on with their struggle to survive.
This had forced them to grow up long before their time. Childhood for them is a time for work in a foreign country, a struggle to raise a family, to look after the home and deal with "adult" responsibilities. Playing gives Ala a sense of peace and releases from her present world and allows her to reconnect with the old.
When I reflect back on my childhood, I realize how lucky I was. I also know that even though the Syrian children have had everything taken away from them, their hearts and minds radiate with love. Love is what children know best. Despite all, they are thankful, humble and hopeful that when the tragedy ends one day, they will go back home and continue the childhood they had left behind in the ruins.
*The number of refugees in Turkey in 2015 is expected to rise to nearly 1.9 million, including 1.7 million Syrian refugees, half of those being children.