Last Wednesday, author Dale Hanson Bourke visited World Vision's education programs for Syrian refugee children in Jordan.
Read about Zaid, the boy she met who is working hard to overcome the challenges he faces as a refugee, and the special way she connected with Zaid's mother.
He looks like the other adolescent boys in the classroom, joking one minute, competing to be the first with the answer the next. The only thing unusual about Zaid is the hat he wears even inside.
In the town of Irbid, Jordan, the young teen, Zaid, is just one of many newcomers. He’s only been in here for a month but is already popular with his classmates and has a role in the play they will perform in a few weeks. “He’s a very good actor and a strong student,” says Layla Sakaji (“Sister Layla”), director of the program.
Run out of a local community center, the children’s program is part school, part psychosocial recovery program, helping Syrian refugee children transition into the Jordanian school system, often after months or years of missing formal schooling. Jordanian students needing extra help also attend sessions at the center, which is supported by World Vision and the U.N.
“Zaid is so popular already that the other children insist on carrying him outside to play,” says Sister Layla. Thinking I have missed something in the translation, I ask her to explain. That’s when it becomes clear why Zaid wears a hat.
He is one of the students attending the center with both physical and psychological scars. His hat covers a large scar on his head, the site of several operations. His legs cannot hold him up, a result of either head trauma or another war injury. So when the time comes to go outside, his fellow students lift the slight 13-year-old out of his chair and bring him outdoors with them.
As we learn more about Zaid’s story, it’s hard to imagine that this smiling, popular boy has only recently escaped the Syrian war with his parents. It is even more difficult to understand his demeanor when we learn he saw his father gravely injured during a shelling and lost two siblings in Syria.
“This program is where they can be children again,” says Sister Layla, who started the school in 2012. “The children help each other recover from what they have experienced and, when they come here, they have something to do that helps take their minds off the terrible things they have seen.”
Later that afternoon we visit Zaid’s home, a small apartment where he lives with his mother and father. His father, still suffering the effects of his injuries, sits quietly out of the way on a chair, but his mother, Manal, greets us warmly and asks us to sit on the cushions that fill most of the small space.
She tells us briefly about the family’s struggle to leave Syria and the loss of her other children. And then she explains how the family was able to get Zaid to a hospital in order to treat his head wound, telling us that he has had a total of four surgeries and needs yet another.
But it’s complicated, she adds. Zaid also suffers from hemophilia, requiring costly injections the family cannot afford. “Since escaping Syria we have mostly lived in hospitals,” she says. She looks down sadly, seeming to remember all of the pain in one moment.
We tell her we have visited Zaid’s school and have seen how popular he is. She smiles and tells us he is excited about being in the school play. I look at her face and see a mother’s pride, the joy every mother feels when her child is praised; the same joy I feel when one of my sons does well.
So I ask my friend and translator, Salwa, to tell her something more. “Please tell her that she’s a good mother,” I say. “Her son has gone through so much, yet he is kind and funny and loved by the other children,” I say, struggling to imagine how I would feel if I had watched one of my sons go through so much. “You have taught him to be a good person. You are a very good mother.”
As she hears the words, Manal smiles, then holds her hand over her heart. “Shukran,” she says—“thank you” in Arabic.
We embrace Manal as we leave and then get back into our van to return to our hotel. As we drive by, we see the family has all come outside to wave to us. Manal once again places her hand over her heart, and I respond with the same gesture, wordlessly thanking her for being such a good mother and silently promising to remember her and her son.
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Dale Hanson Bourke is a former board member of World Vision U.S. and World Vision International, and the author of 10 books. She is currently traveling in Jordan to see work with refugees. Connect with her on Twitter.
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