Firas Majeed is one of the more than one million Iraqi refugees living in Syria. He left his family's home in Baghdad in 2005 to escape the violence that continues to plague Iraq. He made the decision to leave Iraqi for an uncertain future in Jordan after the militia that controlled the neighborhood he was living in demanded he join them.
Firas went first to Jordan and to Syria after his Jordanian visa expired. Like many Iraqis, he found work illegally in both countries, but had no recourse when employers refused to pay him.
Forced to depend on a sister living outside the Middle East to support him, Firas began spending his time studying English and trying to figure out how he could use the skills he had to help those he saw suffering around him. Firas never finished high school — he had quit in order to help support his nine-member family in Baghdad — but was skilled with computers and had experience running his own business.
"The majority of Iraqis can't afford to buy computers," he says. "However, Iraqis are eager to learn about computers and how to benefit from them, especially considering the fact that Internet has become an essential and cheap way of communications between families, relatives and friends out and inside Iraq! Plus Internet has become the only window to the outside world that Iraqis could use."
In the neighborhood where he lives in Damascus, Firas sees firsthand how many students are unable to finish school as he was, forced to help support their families or unable to find a place in already overcrowded Syrian schools.
Firas was also frustrated that no one seemed to care about the plight of Iraqi students. When he was approached by an American journalist working with the Pulitzer Center's Global Gateway Program about connecting students at a St. Louis-area high school and his students in Damascus, he was more than willing. Civitas, a St. Louis-based NGO, donated a laptop computer and webcam for the project to help get things started.
"I did many sessions between Iraqi students and US students, different ages and grades," Majeed says. "In the first session, I saw confusion with my students because they hadn't talked with American people before. My students started to learn how to express themselves, and also they start see there's many people interested about them. They became happy for that and want to talk more."
The site also puts faces one refugees who are more often represented as numbers.
"In one session, when my students talk with US students, they ask my students how we can bring you to the US to see us?'" Majeed says. "That means they feel responsibility toward Iraqi kids.
"It's a cultural exchange."
In addition to speaking to foreign students, Majeed also provides Iraqi students in Syria with basic computer training, using laptops donated from abroad.
"This is their first time being in an Internet cafe ever," he says of some of the students. "I feel glad to help them. Hopefully, we can compensate them for the dark days they suffered, even if only a little bit."
If you are interested in setting up a chat with Iraqi students in Syria, you can contact Firas at: Firastot@gmail.com. To find out more about the students and schools involved with this project, visit www.nativewithoutanation.blogspot.com.