It was a chilly afternoon in January at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. In a makeshift city, thousands of Syrian families had reluctantly made their homes in tents and caravans, fleeing their country for safety. Under a cloudy and dark blue sky, I stood in front of a group of 50 kids who had gathered between several tents to attend an art and conflict-resolution workshop.
As the founder and director of Project Amal ou Salam, a project that aims to empower the future of Syria, I had run similar workshops all over Turkey and Lebanon. Now, here I was standing in front of kids who were dressed in worn-out clothes. Some wore shoes that didn't match.
I introduced an activity I call “Rebuilding your town,” which helps kids envision a future free from conflict. I asked where they would go when the conflict is over.
“To Syria!” they called out together.
“What will we need in our new Syria?” I asked. They began to shout their answers with enthusiasm.
“Schools and houses!” said a girl cradling her younger sister in her lap, both wearing muddy pink dresses.
“Parks!” And then, “Hospitals!”
I wanted the kids to understand that they were the most important players in a peaceful and prosperous Syria.
I then asked if there were room for Christians in this rebuilt Syria.
The answer was swift and unequivocal.
No, there was no room in the Syria of their dreams for Christians.
I felt crushed. I am a Christian. The idea that children, who didn’t even understand my faith, felt this way at such a young age made me not only sad, but a little bit scared.
At first, I hesitated revealing to the group that I in fact was a Christian. And then I said it. “You know, I am a Christian.” The room went silent.
Since 2013, I had traveled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan as part of my Project Amal ou Salam, which translates from Arabic to mean Project Hope and Peace. I had led workshops like this one to over 5,000 kids, teaching them about diversity, tolerance and nonviolence. Having grown up in Syria, leaving at the age of 17 to attend university in Canada, this was my way of giving back to the future of my country.
But I have also learned as well. The more Syrian children I work with, the more I understand the dynamics of Syrian society that I hadn’t noticed before. I saw in a new light that growing up in Damascus, in our tight-knit society, religion was never an issue. As a child, I was able to be best friends with both Muslims and Christians. My friends and I were taught that Syria was known to be a hub for all three major world monotheistic religions. The harmony that existed in Syria between the different religions, we understood, should be an example to communities worldwide.
When the Syrian revolution began in March 2011, dreams of a free and democratic country took over the hearts of many Syrians. But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare of destruction and unimaginable violence. The country quickly began to divide itself between pro- and anti-Assad regime factions, the dictatorial family that had run the country for over 40 years.
Many Christians chose to align themselves with the Syrian regime, fearful of the impact of extremism on minority groups. I was determined to not let fear stand in the way of my beliefs, or the plight of my people.
But as time passed, things got worse. The dividing lines caused by sectarianism became blurry and I decided to invest my time into empowering the children of my country — the future of Syria. I also knew that as a Christian Syrian I could teach them about religious tolerance by working with someone from a different religion, an experience they'd never had. And someone who had studied conflict resolution at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution in Washington, D.C., I could teach them how to live together, despite their differing beliefs.
Back in the classroom at the refugee camp, the children eventually broke the silence. Once they got over the shock of being in a room with a Christian, they peppered me with questions about what I believed. Many of the kids had been told that Christians do not believe in God. When I began to explain to them that Christians believed in the same God that Muslims do they looked at me puzzled, as if I had just shattered what they had always known to be true.
“Do you pray?” they asked me. “How do you pray?”
And then, “Are you sure you are Syrian?”
My colleague, Salam Al-Haddad, jumped in. He’s a Sunni Damascus native who has been volunteering at Zaatari since fleeing Syria two years ago. He asked the kids if they knew the story of the Caliph Omar. They shook their heads.
He told them how the Caliph Omar, the second caliph of Islam, made his way to Jerusalem to sign a peace treaty that said, “ the inhabitants of Jerusalem are granted security of life and property. Their churches and crosses shall be secure. This treaty applies to all people of the city. Their places of worship shall remain intact. These shall neither be taken over nor pulled down. People shall be quite free to follow their religion. They shall not be put to any trouble.”
So, Salam asked them, if the Caliph Omar wanted to protect Christians and their places of worship, shouldn’t we want to do the same?
The kids stared back at Salam and me, a Muslim and a Christian standing there side by side. I waited as our message sunk in. They seemed to be absorbing the idea that Syria could in fact belong to both Muslims and Christians.
“Now who wants to rebuild both a Mosque and a church in our arts activity to rebuild Syria?” I asked. They jumped from their seats and gathered in small circles around the art supplies I had laid out for them on the floor as they shouted “Me! Me!” I looked at them pass around markers, glue sticks and cardboard while planning the design of their “new town.”
The story worked.
Nousha Kabawat is the founder and director of Project Amal ou Salam and a fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. She can be reached at email@example.com