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Story Publication logo March 12, 2015

Syria's Next Generation


Image by Lauren Gelfond. Jordan, 2014.

Syrian and other international volunteers travel at their own expense to Syrian refugee...


Three years after Syrian intelligence ransacked her Damascus home, Felicie Dhont stares through the window of a bus driving north in Jordan, rubbing her six-month pregnant belly.

The 23-year-old smiles, watching olive trees, wheat fields and wild red poppies whizz by, reminiscent of the nearby Syrian countryside she loved before the war reduced so much of it to rubble. "Syria, ah, Syria!" she says, pointing to a green sign directing drivers to the now-closed border-crossing.

Jordan's border towns are as close as Dhont is going to get to Syria for what could be a long time. Since the 2011 uprising and subsequent army crackdown - when a journalist staying in her family home was picked up, jailed and tortured - her stomach has been feeling "like this," she says, wringing her hands. A 20-year-old student at the time, she never again slept in the home she grew up in. As a critic of Syria's government on social media and in cafes, she didn't stop looking over her shoulder until, finally, she left the friend's house where she was staying to resettle in Egypt. Weeks before her first child is due, dreams of raising a family in Syria remain on hold.

After travelling 500km alone from Cairo to Amman, and joining volunteers on the way to work with Syrian refugee children, she is filled with anticipation. "This is the first happy thing to happen in years and I want to share my love of Syrians with him," Dhont says, pointing to her abdomen.

Around us, the chartered bus echoes with laughter and a buzz of Arabic and English. Half is filled with Syrians - refugees, displaced persons, expatriates and some still living in Syria - who seem nothing like the haggard exiles and survivors pictured in the news. These 20- and 30-something students, artists, musicians, activists, bankers and executives could easily blend with hip graduate students or young professionals in many countries. But behind a veneer of cheerful banter or quiet grace, despair about the tragedy in Syria is carefully tucked away. The war has turned us into "crocodiles", several of them explain, using the Syrian-Arabic expression for stoic, or someone numb to pain.

Still, joining this expedition, while the violence of Syrian forces, Islamic State (IS) jihadists and other militants nearby devastates their homeland, they are starting to feel hopeful.

Each has taken a holiday from work, studies or personal life. Instead of heading to beach resorts or cosmopolitan capitals, they are travelling at their own expense to the very places their wealth and education has allowed them to avoid: the disadvantaged refugee neighbourhoods just beyond Syria's border. They see the non-violent revolution as frozen in Syria but continuing there.

As analysts debate military options and humanitarian organisations distribute aid, they are focusing on a long-term aim: transforming the hopes and values of refugee children, based on methods used in post-conflict societies. If exposing young people to optimism and respect for diversity, civic participation and non-violence has had a positive influence in such places as Bosnia, Kosovo, Ireland, Rwanda and South Africa, could it also, eventually, help Syria? To combat the values of groups like IS and a regime that doesn't represent them, they are betting it could: teaching Syrian refugee children they have a future and the power to shape it can influence Syria in the next generation, they say. Meanwhile, their short-term goal is simple: making child survivors of war smile.

Sitting in front of the bus, Nousha Kabawat, looks up from her planning. Born in Canada to Syrian parents, Kabawat grew up from the age of six in Damascus, where her extended family has lived in its ancestral courtyard-home for two centuries. Like the other Syrians, she has disconnected much of her emotion from the news as a survival technique. Yet the make-up of this volunteer crew has caught all of them off guard. They are touched, wowed even, that non-Syrians from Europe, and as far as the US and Canada are investing time and money to help Syrian children. Seeing the bus filled with volunteers from around the world wearing the "Amal ou Salam" ("Hope and Peace") T-shirt of the organisation she founded a year earlier, a lump comes to Kabawat's throat.

"It's overwhelming. I'm 24 and all these people trust me enough to come from every country," she says, running her gold Syria-map pendant through her fingers. "This is turning into a network of people with the same values, connecting."

The previous day, Kabawat had swept into an Amman conference room like a gust of wind. Training the volunteers, she waved her hands in hyperkinetic circles and jumped on to a table in leopard-skin yoga leggings, crossing her legs underneath her into a pretzel. A "Free Syria" tattoo inked in Arabic on her upper back was hidden, for the moment, under an open denim shirt.

Kabawat doesn't typically cover her forearms or long hair when in the Middle East, and not only because it isn't her style. Ideologically, she wants to remind the Arab world that there always were multiple cultural norms and ways that Arab women of all backgrounds dressed, before Syria and the region became increasingly conservative. She especially wants the children who grow up under the influence of extremist militants such as IS to be exposed to diversity. In Kabawat's youth, skipping through the side streets of Damascus, being modest meant wearing short sleeves instead of sleeveless shirts. When guards at a displaced persons camp in Syria once ordered Kabawat and her female volunteers to cover their hair before entering, she refused and went elsewhere. "That would be defeating the whole purpose," she says. Today Kabawat doesn't take volunteers into Syria but holds the memories of her Syrian childhood close as she works with Syrian children in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

The Syrian children we will meet have lost their homes, are likely to have lost loved ones and may be singing war chants and drawing revolutionary flags, dead bodies and bombs, Kabawat told the volunteers. "We want them to step out of this. Project Amal ou Salam is very un-political. I'm strict and insist you take it seriously."

With most of the Syrians and Jordanians knowing reasonable to fluent English from childhoods in exclusive private schools, Kabawat continued primarily in English. A smattering of Arabic reverberated around the room, as everyone translated for each other.

Redirecting the energy, songs, conversations, drawings, behaviour and mood of the children so that they will feel they have something to look forward to requires easy adjustments, she explained. "We want to focus on positive things." For example, a question about the future: "After the conflict is over we have to rebuild Syria - what do we need?"

Five daily workshops she designed relate to child-friendly conflict resolution theories:

+arts and crafts use urban-planning tools to redesign destroyed neighbourhoods after the war, working with neighbours of all religions and backgrounds to meet everyone's needs

+photography teaches multiple perspectives

+music encompasses music-therapy techniques to soothe, and basic music theory to teach that diverse people who never studied instruments can work together to create one beat

+sports and team-building show that working together creates more success, strength and trust

She summed up with a wink: "Cemeteries no, rainbows yes."

Kabawat honed her theories while earning a Master's degree in conflict resolution in the US, focusing on peacebuilding in post-war societies. Afterwards, in 2013, she found children in a Syrian camp bored and mimicking the language of anger, violence and sectarianism around them. Relief efforts helped with physical needs, but she started imagining a volunteer-led programme to feed the children's self-esteem and character. Consulting conflict resolution experts, primarily at George Mason University in Virginia where she had studied, she planned a programme of travelling workshops to feel like summer camps. Without a background in business, fundraising or management, she used a web campaign and social media to fundraise and recruit volunteers.

After quickly raising $7,500 for a pilot project, she went in summer 2013 to Turkey with seven volunteers to work with 400 children and then to Lebanon to work with 100. As she had no overheads or salaries to pay, and overseas volunteers paid for their own travel and hotels, the money went on art supplies, rented spaces, food and buses.

When I meet up with the group in Jordan in 2014, she has raised $25,000 and recruited 33 volunteers to work with 1,000 refugee children. She has also started sending supplies to Syrian schools. Her dream, she says, is to "eventually reach hundreds of thousands of children".

Kabawat, young, female and Arab, represents a new generation of conflict resolution leaders in a field traditionally led by older men. With her frenetic energy, charisma and banter, she is easy to imagine not long ago as a tough, popular high school student. But talking one-on-one, she is sombre.

"As Syrians, we've aged so much in the past year it feels like four," she says, leaning her head and rubbing her eyes, as if to scrub away the tragedies she reads about daily from contacts back home.

"Children," she says, "are the only hope now left for Syria."

Meeting the children

The bus pulls up to the gate of a spotless state-run orphanage that Kabawat has rented in the hills of Irbid. Jordan's second largest city hosts about 140,000 refugees, though all we see in the near distance are dry grassy hills, except for a villa, surrounded by Bedouin shacks. Black-and-white sheep graze around them. The orphanage facade, like all the schools and many buildings in Jordan down to some falafel shops, boasts mammoth posters of King Abdullah II and the late King Hussein.

Inside the gated courtyard surrounded by sandstone walls, it is quiet until the buses rented by Kabawat pull up and 200 six-to-13-year-olds pour in.

Syrian activists estimate that at least 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since 2011 and nearly half the pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced internally or to neighbouring states. Despite the news focus on refugee camps, 84% of the 631,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan live in host communities, according to the UN. About half are children, many of whom are not schooled.

Three years before we arrive, they were just a few kilometres away on the other side of the border. They would have heard about other children close to their age in Dera'a, who had scrawled graffiti calling for the fall of the regime. The government jailed and tortured the children and mocked the desperation of their parents. Non-violent protesters chanting "hurriyeh" (freedom) and "karama" (dignity) were met with tear gas, arrests and torture. Syrian forces, IS, the Nusra Front and multiple militias have long since rolled over the non-violent revolution.

To meet the child survivors, we have woken at 6am in Amman to arrive by 8am. A sea of smiles and clean, colourful outfits stare back at us. The kids have fled ravaged districts that look like scenes from Europe at the end of World War Two, yet their traumas are not immediately obvious. A volunteer whispers that several have hearing aids, a result of explosion-induced hearing loss.

Many of the boys have black eyes. James Gordon, a US-based psychiatrist, abruptly comes to mind. He has worked in war zones from Bosnia and Kosovo to Gaza and Israel and in such disaster zones as Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Everywhere, he told me when I interviewed him in Jerusalem two years ago, he found the same results: survivors of war and disaster often beat their children.

The powerlessness they feel, coupled with traumatic memories and harrowing losses, often lead them to impulsive, violent behaviour they later regret.

Children, he said, are at multiple risk because they often have their own post-traumatic stress, which can cause them to express themselves more violently. They model themselves on the way the adults around them deal with anger, and they often become victims of adults and children who lose their tempers. But there was hope, Gordon emphasised: the tendency towards violence and hopelessness that follow traumatic events can be quickly assuaged if those affected learn optimism, self-expression, and ways to calm their nervous systems. I look around and wonder.

Scooby doo

Cheers ricochet around the courtyard. As the children line up according to age, and - at their request - gender, the volunteers distribute team-colour string bracelets, juice and cheese pies, while leading "positive" chants.

Over the week, we see that many of the kids love to raise their hands into the V-sign for victory and chant "Down with Assad!" and "May the regime fall!" But Kabawat instructs the volunteers to teach forward-thinking cheers unrelated to war, violence or revolution.

"Yom Salam" ("Day of peace!") shouts Scooby, a Syrian volunteer.

The children follow her lead. "Day of peace! Day of peace!" they scream, raising fists into the air.

Scooby, wearing a clown's red nose, tells them that they don't have to stay forever in Jordan, they can go back to Syria after the war. They can also be part of the rebuilding of Syria one day, she says. Later, she will also drum into them that to be good people and rebuild a peaceful Syria they do not need to resort to violence, lying or cheating. Then, she usually cracks a joke.

The goofiness disguises Scooby's own memories, winding her way through Syria's smashed neighbourhoods to bring aid to the hungry, injured and raped. Now, because she comes from a wealthy family, she can also afford to travel to countries hosting refugee children. Visiting, cheering them up and giving them moral messages are not only acts of charity, she argues, it also prevents the children from "becoming terrorists".

"If you don't give them the right learning they don't know the difference between right and wrong," she says.

"Nobody smiles for them, nobody visits them. No-one gives them hope. Their parents don't have hope, house, food, job, money to go back - they have nothing to give. They are not learning. They will become mean.

"Nobody says, 'Don't worry you'll go back to your home one day.' They say, 'Sorry you don't have a home.' All these things crash on them.

"We tell them, 'You will be someone.' The hope we are selling in this project is everything."

But helping suffering Syrians is seen as treason that can "get a bullet in my body", she says, explaining why her real name and country of residence must not be published.

Switching off her overwhelming recollections, she settles easily into the role of whacky camp counsellor as she raises the megaphone. "We will rebuild Syria! We will rebuild Syria with peace!"

"We will rebuild Syria with peace!" they mimic.

Then in English, she roars her namesake cheer: "Scooby Dooby Doo, I love you!"

The children don't know who Scooby Doo is, but they like the way it sounds. They all know what "I love you" means.

They begin chanting over and over, in English: "Scooby Dooby Doooooooo, I love you! I loooooovee yooooouuuuu!"

The children are laughing. Everyone is laughing.

Rebuilding after war

R, a 29-year-old Syrian graphic designer helps run the arts and crafts workshops. Piles of coloured paper, glue sticks, tape, scissors, markers and decorations dot the tables.

Some of the children draw suns, trees, clouds and houses. Others draw aircraft dropping bombs. One girl draws a heart with an eye inside. It's not clear if the eye is crying or bleeding.

R continues the mantra that they can go home after the war. "Eventually we will go back to our homeland," he says. "What do we need to rebuild it?"

He tries not to give them all the answers, to get them thinking. "I assume they get enough food and clothes, but they also need to play, to be creative… arts, interaction with people, music… to have their opinions asked - the opportunity to do something," he says.

The children draw and shape construction paper into new houses. "Who here has lost a home?" R asks.

"My house was demolished in a bombing."

"My school was destroyed."

"The hospital was demolished."

"The military is living in my house."

They brainstorm, what else does a neighbourhood need besides homes? "Where will you play?" R asks.

Some draw parks and playgrounds. A girl designs a butterfly park. They lose themselves drafting neighbourhood gardens.

"What else does a city need to function?" R asks.

Eventually, hospitals, schools and airports start to take shape, with sugar paper as walls and coloured balls as bushes or patients. A boy named Hamad draws a new school, naming it Hope and Peace, after the programme.

Another boy, who had been crying that he didn't know how to draw but who was encouraged to try anyway, has found a roll of blue tape and is drawing roads with it. R tickles and encourages him.

Then a child draws an airport with fighter jets, without realising that military symbols are against camp rules. After R explains that airports are for seeing the world and visiting neighbours, the boy scribbles over the jets. But then he draws a tank.

"No," R says. "We are designing a non-violent city." The boy designates the vehicle as a tank of peace and safety.

"But why a tank?"

"This is the time to protect peace," he says.

A Jordanian boy, Thaksin, eight, who goes to school with Syrian refugees and has joined the group, draws a conversation.

"Did you know peace is useful?" one figure asks. "Yes, I know," the other boy in the picture replies.

"What is the drawing about?"

"Jordan and Syria," he says.

R plugs his iPod into mini-speakers. White paper is pinned to the wall as R instructs the kids to draw lines in every direction. Electronic house music bangs against the walls. Volunteers dance with their arms.

Smiling, a boy draws a pink sun. A girl creates flowers. As R encourages them to let the music come through their hands without thought, they begin scribbling and jumping with the music.

Everyone is scrawling wildly. A boy with a black eye starts laughing.

"I really find hope in them," R says afterwards. "After the war we're going to have to work together, even if one side wins. Only united we'll make a difference. Already today the kids feel they are all in this together and this will show that someone is actually thinking of them."

He holds his head in his hands then puts on his designer sunglasses and heads out for a smoke.

A few kilometres away, IS would soon outlaw the teaching of art and crafts, music and sports.

The playing field

Outside, volunteers blow whistles to begin the sports workshop. A young girl runs to the side, screaming, and curls into a ball, crying. Volunteers race to comfort her, explaining that the whistle is not dangerous and just signals that the games are starting.

Anum Malik, a 21-year-old international development student at George Washington University in Washington DC, notices a boy with a striped sweater looking nervous.

Eight-year-old Ammar, beneath his jeans and long sleeves, she realises, is wearing a prosthetic leg and is missing an arm from a bombing in Dera'a. "Everything is going to be fine," Malik whispers, smiling. He stands in the circle and the girl next to him holds on to his hanging sleeve.

Later, Kabawat sees Ammar playing and tears up. "I saw him having such an awesome time. I was so happy to be able to give him this… I'm so moved by these kids."

At the end of the day, Ammar's eyes also well with tears as the kids pile on to rented buses.

Another 20 squish themselves into a jalopy van. Most of them practically fall out the windows to wave goodbye, but one boy stares back, looking devastated.

He watches from the window until we can't see them any more.

Inside the bag he and the others take home, a keepsake card reminds: "Your education is your weapon."

No politics, no religion?

On the fourth day, we head north from Amman, past Jerash, one of the world's best-preserved Roman-era ruins and Jordan's second most popular tourist destination. When we reach Kitteh, a mountain village in the Jerash district, the landscape feels isolated from visitors and time. Olive trees blanket the quiet hills.

It's starkly different from the other refugee neighbourhoods we visited in Irbid and Mafraq. Kitteh hosts hundreds of Syrian refugees, but has no proper school. The Mukhtar, the village leader, organises 200 Syrian children from surrounding villages to come to the immaculate, white concrete compound around his office. They arrive chanting anti-regime songs, raising their fingers into the victory sign, and shouting "Allahu Akhbar," God is great.

Children who say they are seven look five. The five-year-olds look three. The older ones, who have done much of their growing up before the war, look stronger, but squatting against the wall, Mahmud, 10, holds his head in his hands because he is hungry. As volunteers fetch food, a boy with green eyes reports that they woke at 5am to be on time for this visit. We wonder if they have had play activities or visitors since fleeing Syria.

As the temperature passes 30C (86F), many of the kids still wear jackets and sweaters. A little girl runs, wearing a man's full-length leather coat. I gesture to the boy standing next to me to remove the fleece coat over his T-shirt. His friend points to the sun and wags his finger, "No". Volunteers pour water into everyone's mouths without touching lips and poke holes in the caps to use them as sprinklers.

Kabawat ducks into a small lean-to draped in red, blue, green and white swirled-fabric. Cracking open sunflower seeds with her teeth to snack on, she watches the children - the youngest, most impoverished and traumatised we've met. Here and there, even some of their shoes are crumbling. If they can't learn about the deeper messages of values, Kabawat says, at least they can be given laughter, play and attention.

These Syrian children have had such a different childhood from hers and not just because of war and poverty, she says. Growing up in the 80s and 90s in Damascus, "We never had sectarian issues."

Kabawat, from a Christian family, was best friends with Muslim and Christian children. "We never said, 'He's Muslim, he's Christian,' we'd say, 'He's from Damascus, he's from Aleppo,'" she says.

She wasn't allowed to ask about a person's religion. When I ask her why not, she furrows her eyebrows. "Because it didn't matter."

Kabawat's family, always hosting people from diverse backgrounds, had a huge influence on her. Syrian society, though, referred to Jews and Israelis as "the enemy," she says. As a teenager, talking to someone at the US Embassy in Damascus, her eyes opened with curiosity when she heard about a camp for Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian teenagers, with Americans in the role of third-party mediators. Though she belonged to none of those countries, she hounded the Seeds of Peace admissions board. "I was always rebellious and it was against Syrian law to go anywhere with the intention to meet Israelis, but I wanted to know beyond what I was living - that it was taboo had a lot to do with it," she says.

"I told them if I have this experience, it'd build positive relations between Israel and Syria," Kabawat says. "My parents approved - it being about tolerance and acceptance - but said I couldn't tell anyone."

There, "with the American delegation, I was the Arab. A lot of Palestinians didn't speak English and the Americans didn't speak Arabic. I realised it was something I was meant to do - to connect people… I realised I was good at explaining different perspectives, getting one to see the other's point of view.

"The point of peace [groups] is to break stereotypes. In Syria you grow up thinking Jews are your enemy and you talk to them and realise that the enemy has a face and common interests and is just like you, but from a different country... The Jews also told me we [Syrians/Arabs] are the enemies, so I was saying how the Israeli and Palestinian girls were shaving their legs together, realising we're all humans with no differences."

Obviously there were serious political disagreements. "When you're in dialogue you fight it out, but when you leave the room, you have to co-exist, you share the room, sink, food, which I appreciate because not everything is political. It's something we can learn in Syria. We can argue about politics but at the end of the day we live together which is the point of this whole week."

Years later, studying conflict resolution, she travelled to Egypt where she was thrilled to find a Syria tent in Cairo's Tahrir Square. When Syrians there started asking her what religion she was and making generalisations about which religious streams support the regime, she felt outraged and isolated. On one hand, the outside world didn't know or care enough about the slaughter in Syria, she felt. On the other hand, Syrians themselves were fighting about religion, while in fact people of every religion were suffering traumatic losses, she says.

But she had an epiphany. The non-violent revolution could not work now inside Syria, but it could work with refugee children, to create a generation with different values.

When she got back to the US, she got her tattoo.

Peace flag

Getting this message of a "free Syria" across to children who grew up during a war with a sectarian divide has not been easy.

Syrian censuses have not included religion or ethnicity, but experts estimate that 75-85% of Syrians are Muslims - primarily Arab Sunni but also Kurdish Sunni, Arab Alawite Shiite, Arab Druze and Arab Ismaeli. About 10-15% of Syrians are Christians, including Christian Orthodox Arabs, Armenian Orthodox, Catholic and Assyrian. Christians and other small minorities (Jewish, Circassian and Turkmen) are protected with freedom of religion under Syria's 1973 constitution, though the country's leader can only be Muslim.

Some Sunni Muslims have always seen Alawite Shiite Muslims as unorthodox, yet the various religions and sects enjoyed relatively good relations in the years before the war - something the child refugees may not know or remember.

By the time we meet them, many have been convinced that all Shiite Muslims - and, often, Christians - are responsible for their tragedy, and it comes up in the workshops.

Many children build mosques in the rebuild your neighbourhood workshop, but "most kids feel rage" when asked to also build a church, says R.

One afternoon, two girls push each other after one insists on building a church and the other snaps that church-goers are heretics. When Muslim and Christian volunteers explain that neighbours should work together in unity and not blame whole populations for a few, the girls, in this case, end up building two churches - next to the mosque.

When the children are assigned to design a new Syrian flag - "peace flag" - many of them grab green, red and black markers to draw the revolutionary flags, representing the opposition to Assad. Workshop leaders end up confiscating red, green and black markers.

"No Syrian Army flag. No Revolutionary flag!" R calls out. "We are the future now. Let's dream we are in the future and building a new country. It's peaceful, let's design a flag for the new era."

Soon their flags boast rainbows, plants, animals, people of all colours, and everywhere, in English and Arabic, the word "love".

R is one of the only Syrians who makes it through the week without welling up. But by the backdrop of the colourful swirls of the tent, he pulls me over to show me a drawing made by a small girl in a pink coat. Tukar, smiling up at me, proudly shows me her picture of a helicopter dropping bombs on a bleeding house. Flowers grow around it.

"Why did you draw that?" he asks.

"I saw my aunt's house bombed… she's dead," Tukar says.

He can't shake this image from his mind.

La La Land

Syrian musician Shadi, 34, pulls his long black curly hair into a ponytail and straps on his guitar. He stomps around the music workshop in baggy jeans and sneakers, using his arms and legs as instruments. Many of the children have never seen or heard a guitar nor had a music lesson. "Yaay - ya yay - yaaaa! Wooo! Ha ha ha ha!" He sings while strumming, opening his eyes wide, as he makes his way around the circle.

Dhont, hugging her belly, joins Syrian and international volunteers circling the room, singing along.

A performer known around Jordan and Syria for his Arabic rock, folk and Sufi-inspired singing and playing, Shadi teaches music and rhythm, while using elements from music therapy. The kids stamp feet and clap hands.

Since Shadi fled Damascus, where he had studied opera at the Conservatory of Music, he is fed-up hearing Syrian refugee children in Jordan sing revolutionary songs. "I don't want them to keep singing these stupid, heavy, insulting, cursing, lyrics. Their parents are angry and it becomes their language. I want to take them back to their childhood and remind them that they don't have to care about this stuff. That's why a lot of the sounds I use are without lyrics so that they can sing [without thinking]," he says.

"Music is the language of peace. When you add lyrics it becomes a message."

At the end of each workshop Shadi makes an exception. "I sing this song for everyone," he says of the Arabic folk song Helwa Ya Baladi.

"It is a national song without hate and without being special to any country or people. It's just, 'I miss my homeland; I'm dreaming about going back; we're going to go back to our home.'"

Penned in 1979 by the late Egyptian-born diva, Dalida, the song remains popular across the Arabic-speaking world.

As Shadi plays one morning, Kabawat wanders in, singing and clapping. Surrounded by Syrian children singing of dreams to return to their beautiful homeland, she turns her head, sobbing.

In steamy and disadvantaged Kitteh, where the younger children seem more traumatised, Shadi adds a meditation exercise to the music workshop.

"Breathe in... hold your breath," he says to the kids seated on the Mukhtar's porch. "Now let your breath and all your worries go out of your body and send it some place very far away."

"Where to?" a small girl asks.

"Send it to jehannam [hell]" he says, smiling.

"Ahhh!" the children reply, laughing.

"To calm, this is what they need," Shadi says, on the patio later. "Children need to play and stop the mind."

Looking around at the olive trees dotting the surrounding hills, Shadi also breathes in deeply.

"The landscape is exactly the same as in Syria," says Dhont, slumped in a chair besides him. "I feel like I'm in Syria, where we used to go for a picnic."

Shadi nods.

For a few minutes, they stare ahead, silent and cheerful.

It is the end of the week and no-one but Dhont has slept more than a few hours a night. The previous night, after saying goodnight to her, we stayed singing and dancing until a few hours before waking-up time, to hear Shadi perform in a small Amman club. His voice is shot from a week of singing by day and night, but he wants to tell me something else.

"We don't want them to go back to kill or get revenge," he says. "It's so great what we do, saying, 'We are going to rebuild' - It's not violent, religious or nationalistic."

Heading Home

At the end of the last day, Scooby's group tells her to go back to Syria as a leader to make peace.

"We're going together - Syrians, Jordanians, people from all over the world - we're going back to rebuild Syria," she says.

"Will we see you in the next government?" a boy asks.

"No," she says, laughing. "I will always be with the people."

"No," some of the kids joke back. "We will look for your name when we grow up and bring you to be in the government."

They hug her, give her sweets and follow her and the other volunteers around. When she explains that it was Nousha Kabawat who was responsible for the programme, they chant, "Nousha, Nousha, Nousha!"

"Thank you and please bring everyone back, OK?"

"See you, inshallah [god willing], soon," Scooby says.

A little boy replies: "See you in Syria."

"They will remember us," Scooby says on the bus back to Amman, impressed that this boy had internalised the message that he can go back after the war and doesn't have to be a refugee forever.

"I met a man once who remembered for his whole life the people that had visited him when he was in a camp."

But can such a short programme really change them, after all they have been through?

"For sure," Scooby replies. "There are a lot of small things that make a difference, like the butterfly effect. The butterfly is changing the air with her wings. Even a smile is a huge thing."

She shapes her hands into a butterfly and stares me in the eyes. "In each one is a monster. If you leave it to grow, it will grow."

She is terrified the children will join groups like IS one day.

"Everyone looks for short-term solutions. OK - we have fed them. All their lives they will ask for food.

"And if you teach them how to be good - if you smile, touch, give gifts, hopes - it will make a big difference [helping them] not to be someone who kills."

"It does not even take a week" to change them, she insists. It takes "one second".

Further back in the bus, Kabawat and the Arabic-speakers are singing Arabic songs, dancing and clapping in the aisles again. Later, the younger volunteers will go out once more. It feels like a celebration, except that the war and the child survivors they have said goodbye to are heavy in everyone's thoughts.

Kabawat pauses for a moment to calculate how many kids she can reach on the next trip.

"As a Syrian it hurts me so much to [know] about kids so traumatised, who will eventually lead Syria. They grew up with a lot of corruption and mixed values. You can easily instil in them the positive values we want to see in our Syria. This is our time to come together to create the Syria we want to see," she says.

As song circulates the bus, Dhont is tired from running around all week, six months pregnant. She rests her head back in her seat, rubbing her swollen belly. Looking out at the landscape that has reminded her of the home and people she misses, she reflects on how this volunteer work is one of the most important things she has done in her 23 years.

She closes her eyes, picturing the children she met and dreaming of the child she will soon have - "the future of Syria," she thinks to herself.


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