Farah looked out at the 200 Syrian child survivors of war, feeling overwhelmed. They looked so sweet with their colorful outfits, freshly washed hair, and occasionally smiling eyes. Yet their faces went blank when they spoke of the family members, neighbors, and homes they had lost in shelling.
The Syrian children had been bused to a rented complex in Irbid, near Jordan's border with Syria, for art, sports, music, photography, and team- and trust-building workshops run by Project Amal ou Salam, Arabic for "hope and peace." The organization teaches Syrian refugee children in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq about nonviolence, interfaith cooperation, and reimagining a peaceful future. Having experienced one of the most brutal wars of our time—with an estimated 220,000 to 310,000 dead since the conflict began in March 2011—Syrian children are at high risk for depression, aggression, sectarianism, and possibly one day affiliating with violent groups like ISIS, say experts. More than 4 million Syrians, including almost 2.5 million children, have fled Syria to nearby states, according to the United Nations.
Farah, 23, from Damascus, was one of three dozen volunteers from Syria, the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the Middle East who paid their own way to the project sites recently. The Syrian volunteers—nationals, refugees, displaced persons, and expatriates in their twenties and thirties, many coping with their own trauma—were also searching for nonviolent ways to help their homeland.
A week before she arrived at the project site, and more than 1,500 miles away, Farah had been having dinner out with an old friend from Syria. After graduating from high school in Syria and traveling to universities overseas right before the nonviolent revolution broke out in 2011, they had both watched from afar as the people's uprising turned into a civil war. With this news in the background, they struggled to stay focused, overcome with feelings of powerlessness.
When Damascus acquaintance Nousha Kabawat started looking for volunteers for the organization she had launched a year earlier, the two friends discussed it over dinner. The next day at work, Farah and her friend asked for a week's leave.
Volunteers from around the world met up in Amman, Jordan's capital. Grace Chaoui, 23 at the time, flew in from Dubai, where she had been working since finishing a degree in history and international relations. She still visits her family at home in Syria. "Bullets come into [the house] all the time," she said, without any emotion on her face. She had traveled to Jordan, she told me, looking to "do something good" instead of taking a typical vacation.
After wondering what citizen efforts could do to help the situation in Syria, I went on the road with the group for a week last year to begin getting to know the Syrian nonviolent activists and to witness how volunteer work can—against the odds—influence a generation of children raised in an age of war and militant extremism.
At the workshop sites in Jordan, Syria was just a few miles over the border. Farah's memories of growing up in Syria, when it was still a beautiful, joyful place, kept rising up in contrast. "I lived the best childhood ever—I feel guilty," she told me.
In the first workshop, one of the boys looked familiar. Farah watched the eight-year-old double amputee clap on his shoulder when the time came for the children to put their hands together.
"Have you ever been on television?" Farah eventually asked. He nodded his head and turned back to his activities, his sleeve hanging empty. She cringed with recognition.
She had seen the boy interviewed on television from a hospital bed in 2012, explaining how he lost his arm and foot in an attack on his village, al-Herak. The footage was broadcast again widely in 2013 when al-Arabiya TV remixed the boy's face and words with a sentence from an interview by The Sunday Times in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad questioned the boy's nationality. The segment was broadcast around the Middle East. (In the interview transcript, provided to me by the Times, Assad questions whether the boy is Syrian before the journalist explains that the boy was injured in Syria.) For those Syrians around the world who saw the one clip or another of the spliced footage, the boy became an unwitting symbol of the revolution.
Farah kept her eye on the boy, but she relaxed when she saw how easily he was laughing and running with his prosthetic leg. Afterward, though, she found him sitting alone.
Volunteers had asked the kids to stop raising their fingers into the "V" sign. Frequently mistaken by people from the U.S. as a peace sign, the "V for "victory" gesture is still used in many Middle East countries to demonstrate resistance against repressive regimes. The children were urged instead to shape their hands into hearts while cheering, "We will rebuild Syria with peace."
Farah sat next to him. "This is part of my heart," she said, raising one of her hands into a half heart shape. "This is part of your heart. Let's reunite them."
When Farah tried to get a group of young boys to join hands with the girls for a team-building exercise, an eight-year-old boy cried, "Girls are haram!" using the Arabic word for "sinful" or "forbidden," according to Islamic law. The boy pointed at another child a few years his senior, and called him "the sheikh." It was the child "sheikh," the other boy explained, who had told him what behaviors were acceptable or not, according to Islamic law.
"If girls are haram, then your mother is haram? Your sister is haram?" Farah, a fellow Muslim, asked. Farah grew up Muslim in Syria in the '80s and '90s, when many young girls did not cover their hair or study or play separately from boys. With the gentle prodding of Farah, along with another volunteer, in hijab, the boy eventually acquiesced, agreeing that respectful interaction was acceptable.
One morning, we arrived in the flat, dusty town of Mafraq, another refugee city near the border, to work with Syrian children studying at the dirtiest school any of us had ever seen. Fingerprints and pen-and-pencil graffiti masked the yellowing walls like ersatz wallpaper. Syrian children study in a second shift, after the Jordanians, simply so they can fit inside. The kids, like the building, seemed unruly.
At lunchtime, over shawarma wraps that Amal ou Salam provided, a group of children gathered around me, telling stories of how they had fled the devastated Baba Amr district of Homs. Fayez, nine, wearing a striped sweater, explained, "We are happy to see all of [the volunteers] because you have brought us joy, but we're not happy because we are from Homs." The others nodded in agreement.
Across the cement courtyard, I saw Farah looking pale. One of the girls in her group had not eaten breakfast and was not eating lunch. "How long have you gone without food?" Farah had asked, crouching down beside her.
The girl explained that she was not eating because she wanted to die. "I can't find anything happy in this life," the girl said. "I lost hope."
Like many of the Syrians, the girl was living in extremely impoverished and crowded conditions, with multiple families residing in one apartment. Farah hugged her and asked her what she could be thankful or hopeful about, despite the horrors she had experienced.
Eventually, the girl pulled away. She came back a few moments later and looked Farah in the eyes. "Okay," she said. "I will eat…for you."
Later in the week, Grace helped out in an arts workshop. Volunteers urged the children to imagine themselves rebuilding a peaceful Syria after the war. The children designed rough models of new homes, neighborhoods, and flags representing a positive future.
One 14-year-old boy pointed to a Syrian volunteer with loose blonde hair and snapped, "What religion is she?"
"Does it matter?" Grace replied. "Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Alawites…we are all brothers and sisters. You shouldn't base your opinion of someone on religion—just on character."
"But I hate Shiites and Alawites," another teen responded, referring to the branch and sect of Islam practiced by the Assad family.
"You shouldn't judge them based on religion or national groups," Grace said.
"But if they are slaughtering us or destroying our houses? Then they're with Bashar and against us and in the future we'll be rid of all of [them]."
Grace explained that people of all religions and sects are for and against the regime. "It did upset me—his passionate hatred," she told me afterward. "[But] his friend, who was before very defensive, started nodding in agreement [with me]."
On the last day, Farah and Grace discussed how relieved they were that they had managed to get some of the children to treat themselves and each other with respect.
But when some of the children told them that it was the best day of their lives, it was bittersweet. "Why is today the happiest day of your life," Farah had thought to herself, "and then I'm leaving?"
I stayed in close contact with Grace and Farah after leaving the project. The two women have ended up returning to volunteer almost every vacation since then. Most recently, a few weeks ago, they both flew to Lebanon to volunteer.
"This is how you fight ISIS values," Grace told me on Skype, back in Dubai. "Everything else we tried—asking for reforms in the beginning, advocating for a peaceful revolution later—exploded in our faces. We had so much hope, but it didn't work out." This kind of volunteer work with children, though, she said, "has been the exception for me."