Loretto Goes to World Humanitarian Summit 2016
By Theresa Kubasak
“I’ve been at the Summit for two days and this is the best thing I’ve heard! We need to listen to refugees. Everyone in Europe should be listening. We need to listen to this!”
The responder, Andrea Bellardinelli from Programma Italia Emergency, was correct in the assessment that most of the sessions at the World Humanitarian Summit did not feature the voices of refugees.
However in a session at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) sponsored by the Loretto Community and the U.N. NGO Committee on Migration, three Syrian refugees shared their personal writings. Wafaa, Ali and Mohamad are all students from Ad Dar, a center for Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees in Istanbul. Thanks in part to the Loretto Special Needs Committee, the work of Ad Dar reaches many youth who are without their families in Istanbul, exemplifying three major themes of WHS: safety, dignity, resilience.
Loretto U.N. intern Teresa Blumenstein introduced “Writing for Resilience: A Refugee Youth Intervention Model,” which was facilitated by me. Panelists were all members of Writers’ Workshop, a group that began in June and July 2015 at Ad Dar and continues weekly via Skype.
When Teresa and I first arrived in Istanbul, we worked at Ad Dar with the students helping them choose pieces from their portfolios that they wanted to share with the delegates at the WHS.
“My writing is too personal. Why would I share it with these people I don’t even know?” Wafaa challenged.
“My writing doesn’t represent the whole of Syria. My writing represents me, a narcissistic teenager!” added Mohamad, age 17.
Ali knew right away he would share his reflection about jasmine, the beloved flower of Aleppo, his hometown, and all of Syria.
Samra advised Wafaa, “You should read this one about the wedding. They need to know our customs, our culture. … They need to know us.”
Samra’s comment became a reality as for 90 minutes the students took turns reading their poetry and prose to delegates on the afternoon of day two at WHS. Unfortunately, Samra was absent because she had been hit by a car while she was standing waiting for a bus. The pain in her leg, hip and back was too strong for her to travel that day.
But when Wafaa introduced herself to the panel she elaborated, “We are missing the voice of another woman today, Samra. She was supposed to be with us today, but instead I will be reading some of her writing. It’s really important to listen to the voices of women.”
Wafaa was accepted as a first-year student at Webster University in Webster Groves and has been living with the sisters at the 590 Community since August.
“Sharing my writing at the summit was something out of my comfort zone, but it turned out well,“ Wafaa reflected. “People who were there were listening carefully; it was clear in their eyes. I mainly shared personal stories and memories: my grandmother’s memory and traditional events like weddings and funerals. Just simple and emotional (for me at least) and full of details that are stuck in my memory.”
Mohamad shocked the audience with his “How to Be a Refugee,” a satirical view of the refugee situation. The reality of Mohamad’s daily life meant he had to excuse himself from the panel early to go to his high school finals. Mohamad now attends 11th grade at Friends Select School, a Quaker high school in downtown Philadelphia.
Ali has been accepted to Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill. When he began reading “Jasmine,” the delegates smiled as they listened to what seemed like a memoir of his favorite flower, but as the central image emerged, tears filled their eyes.
The writing process enhances students’ ability to develop resiliency. Through pre-writing, writing, responding, editing and revising they interact with their own words, stories and memories.
Writers’ Workshop provides opportunities to read aloud to peers in a response group, deepening connections to the issues they wrote about and deepening relationships with other members of the workshop. Building of community is one of the foremost characteristics of Writers’ Workshop at Ad Dar.
The students’ pieces they read at the World Humanitarian Summit are reprinted here. The Loretto Community and the U.N. NGO Committee on Migration are grateful to these young writers for sharing their writing with the world community.
Writings By the Students
By Wafaa Abu Elula
Nothing more than death can bring the family together. No matter how far or close relatives they are. They all come to support each other and share the sorrow. When people are sad they become weak, and all they need is someone to rely on.
It was a big shock in my family when my eldest uncle died. He wasn’t very old, though, and he had good health. He died from a heart attack. We received a phone call from my father saying that we should all come to my other uncle’s house. My mother, sisters and I went in a hurry knowing from his voice that there was something wrong. The atmosphere was heavy when we arrived. They told us.
Within less than an hour the house was full. Relatives, friends and neighbors came to share our sorrow. All women were in two rooms and the men were in the other two. Some women were crying, some were reading the Quran and some were doing nothing. I volunteered to serve the coffee for the arriving women. It’s a tradition to serve bitter coffee in death and to eat together.
I received many comments from the women while serving them. “Mashallah! You became a grown lady now, you are ready to marry.” I smiled to her while I was thinking, “How old fashioned she is.”
Another old woman asked me, “Whose daughter are you?” “Fadel’s daughter,” I answered. She smiled and told me how they used to play together when they were little. When it was time to eat, we gathered and ate sfiha, dough with meat on top of it. We eat it with yogurt, and we don’t cook it at home.
The rooms with men were quiet. They say it is a sin for men to cry. But I saw my father cry a little, of course he would. It was the biggest shock that hit my family. But with time sorrow and sadness passed. I still miss my uncle and remember him when I read because he gave me the first book in my life to read.
By Wafaa Abu Elula
Helwe, my grandmother, was a little girl when she lost her mother. She was raised up in Shafaamer, Palestine. My grandfather fell in love with her, but her family refused him several times, but they finally accepted him and my grandparents end up married with two children.
My grandmother was pregnant with her third child when she had to flee her country. She didn’t expect that it would take them a long time to go back. She held her children’s hands and started the journey. They walked all the way to Lebanon; the journey was extremely hard. She gave birth to my uncle, Saber, on the road, and no one was able to help her, but some women who were in the journey, too. People ended up walking with bare feet, hungry and barely carrying their children.
When they arrived to Lebanon they stayed for a while then continued to Damascus, Syria. My grandparents settled in Damascus; they lived there as refugees. My grandmother lived her life yearning for her homeland; always telling stories to her grandchildren about the life there and about the fleeing journey. She also carried her house’s keys with her, hoping that one day she would go back to her country.
My grandmother died in 2007, in a refugee camp, Syria.
By Wafaa Abu Elula
A black and white picture of men, women and children walking in the desert can only recall my grandmother’s voice in my memory. My grandmother, Helwe, used to tell me and my sisters when we were little about the journey they made when she and her family went out of Palestine in 1948.
Different time, different people but the same sorrow and tiredness in their eyes. Carrying their bodies heavily toward the unknown.
Refugees they were called.
The memory of jasmine is unbelievably unforgettable. I definitely prefer jasmine over a trillion kinds of flowers. The small white flower with its scent permeates my whole neighborhood. It is the most popular flower in my country. Damascus city is known as the city of jasmine as well as my city Aleppo. In every street of my city there must be a jasmine tree. When spring comes, the streets’ wall become a mix of green and white. Its smell permeates even in our houses. Jasmines also fall in streets and fly with the air. In sum, jasmine is a symbol of the lovely aspect of my country.
Jasmine was a part of my daily life when I was in my country. I used to pick a flower every time I went out of my building. The huge jasmine tree was next to my building’s door. Every morning I picked a flower and walked my way to the university. Even in my notebooks you can see a jasmine flower in the first page of all of them. I love to smell it all the time and hold it my hand. I used to bring one to my mum every day, and she loved it. She knew that I brought it from the tree next to our building, but she loved it.
Although blood is everywhere right now in my city, jasmine is still there. I saw a picture that I would never forget in my life. There was a dead person in the street, and his blood was everywhere around his body. The jasmine flowers flew and landed next to him. I never forget that bloody jasmine flowers with the broken necks. Even the flowers were sad when blood existed.
Jasmine lives and witnesses everything that happens in my country. It existed long time ago, and it spreads over my country. Everyone loves it and cares about it. I wish I am a jasmine tree that I would be able to stay next to my building. I would see my family every day, and no one would ever hurt me.
How To Be a Refugee
Is life as a stable person not doing it for you? Do you think that living as a seemingly demented, exhausted, and petrified human would fit you better? Well, in that case we’ve got just the thing for you! Here’s the recipe to becoming a top-tier refugee in the 21st century!
First of all, you need to be coming from a country with loads of internal and external conflict, like, say, Syria, Afghanistan, Palestine, etc. You get the idea! Bloodshed, destruction and some famine are all requirements.
Second, you mustn’t be well off because remember, “A rich refugee is simply a forced tourist” after all; the poorer the better!
Third, have some tragedies at the ready, stories you can tell about the place from whence you came.
Fourth and last. Just suffer for a decent living on a daily basis.
Mix all the past steps into one person whose hopes and dreams were probably crushed like the soul of their homeland and you’ve got yourself a nice and cold refugee! Why, you ask?! Well, it’s because life just wasn’t hard enough as is.
Reaching the Other Side
I never thought that I would face such difficulties as I faced in the last five years. When the war started in my country I was almost 18. I had to choose either to give up or keep going. Passing the high school exam when the war was going on, with bombing and explosions everywhere, was the first challenge for me. Unluckily, I could not do my best so my grades were not as high as I wished.
When I could not attend the university, volunteering with the Syrian Red Crescent was good for me. I found in helping others, especially the children, a reason to see the brighter side in life and to keep trying to find a way to reach my goals. Moreover, having my parents always by my side encouraging me for the best was also a main reason to not give up.
During the last four years I spent in Syria, living in danger and seeing death and the huge destruction caused by bombing and the never-ending explosions changed my personality, I became more responsible and a more mature person. Under such pressure, I found in reading the peace of mind I always find when I hold a book ever since I was a child.
When I was exiled to Lebanon, suddenly I found myself alone in a strange country, depending on myself in the new environment. This was the hardest challenge in my life. I kept helping people in the camps of refugees in Lebanon while working and studying; that maybe was my meditation.
With everything I have been through, believing in myself will always be the reason that keeps pushing me forward to pursue my studies and my dreams.
The grass is always greener on the other side, and for me reaching the other side will always be my goal.