20.11.18 | News, A Day to Remember

Visit to the preschool in the Valley of the Christians in Syria

A travel report.

(Photo: EMS/Gräbe)

Lebanese-Syrian border. Once again, I sink into the depths of a heavily upholstered armchair reserved for the rare visitors from abroad who are asked to wait in the smoky room of the passport control office – everything is just as I remember from the last times I had visited Syria during the war in 2014 and 2015. Even the officer is the same as three years ago. “I know him. A friendly Druze,” I whisper to my Syrian companion who had fetched me in his car from Lebanon. He is surprised (how could I know the religion of the people who were controlling us here?) and so he tries to verify my statement. “Where do you call home?” he asks the officer after he had noted down our places of residence. “Suweida,” replies the man in uniform. My companion gives me a nod of approval. As a rule, the people who live in Suweida, a volcanic region in southern Syria, are Syrian Druze and belong to a religious group which split off from Shia Ismaili Islam in the 11th century. Until recently, the region had drawn public attention to itself as it was the last pocket of resistance where “Islamic State” terrorists had fought bitterly against the government army using kidnappings among other tactics.

When my companion and a young border officer had left the room with my passport, the officer waves me over to him and pulls up another armchair next to him. He has a cup of tea brought to me and quickly opens his smartphone to show me some lovely photos. They depict him in private, dressed in traditional clothes together with a few dignified Druze sheikhs. The message is very clear: don’t be put off by the badges of rank on my uniform. I won’t make any difficulties for you here. I am in fact a deeply religious man.  

(Photo: EMS/Gräbe)

Very soon, we are immersed in a theological conversation. The Druze also have a kind of Trinitarian belief, says the officer.  So, he is also familiar with the concept of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. But that is merely a reflection of the human unity of body, mind and spirit. And by the way, his own son was living in Germany. I ask him whether he had already been to see him. The officer sighs. It was completely and utterly impossible for a man in his position to leave Syria – even to go on a short holiday. I take a closer look at him. His stature exudes military rigidity but there again, I notice his sad eyes and his pleasant voice. Can or may one feel any sympathy for a representative of Assad’s security apparatus? In this case, I am unable to do anything else.

Armed with the certificate which my local partner had supplied me with, the border formalities are completed in no time at all. Unlike my last two visits, I pay exactly the price which was entered on the visa: 60 Euro. After this incident, it was an easy overland trip along the road to Wadi Nasara, the “Valley of the Christians”, and to the kindergarten in Kafroun.

(Photo: EMS/Gräbe)

The walls inside the small kindergarten were strewn with colourful children’s paintings. We were to spend the whole morning there to experience everyday life at the centre. The kindergarten was started on 1 January 2014 at the time when the Syrian war was continuing to escalate. The project was financed with funds from the international EMS Fellowship and was initially intended as an emergency measure for 30 children. It was supposed to run for 3 years but then the second project phase started on 1 January 2017 and will now last until 2019. At the moment, 70 children aged from 3 to 6 years old attend the kindergarten. They are split into four grades in nursery, kindergarten and preschool. Thirty of the children are Christians, forty are Muslims – boys and girls number roughly half and half (although there are slightly more girls at the moment).

I observe the little ones busy painting and building houses from Lego bricks; I watch the “middle children” learning easy numbers and the elder ones practising to read and write in Arabic. They all laugh out loud when I make a mistake in counting or when I swap a B with a T. They also sing a song for me: “Backe, backe Kuchen”, all in German! (Something like “Pat a cake, pat a cake...” in English.) And then it’s break time. Outside in the green of the school yard next to the small stream flowing through the village of Kafroun, one of the teachers demonstrates aerobic exercises to the tune of lively music and the children copy her enthusiastically.  Later, there is a short silent meditation and I am astounded how the teachers manage to instruct thirty children to be so completely quiet. I can only imagine how much skill it takes.

(Photo: EMS/Gräbe)

Then something totally unexpected happens. This little boy has been watching me for some time. He is perhaps five years old and has a buzz cut. When I take a few steps towards him, he suddenly rushes up to me, flings his arms around my neck and peppers my cheek with kisses. He doesn’t want to let go of me. I’m at a loss as to how I should react. I stroke my hand comfortingly over his head and I try to put him down but he won’t let go. He clings to me like a limpet for a whole five minutes. “He’s still reliving the moment when he saw his father shot,” a teach explains to me. I take a look around. There are only women working at the kindergarten this year. Could it be the yearning for a male role model that is driving the little lad? But this is Syria, not a rural paradise in Switzerland or the Swabian Alb.

(Photo: EMS/Gräbe)

Lunch break arrives. All the children gather in the large hall of the kindergarten. Each grade sits down one by one. The children spread out blue cloth towels on the table to act as serviettes, and then they pray. It is a plain, simple but heartfelt thank-you to God for all the good things they have been given and a prayer for other children who have nothing – a prayer which both Christian and Muslim children can say together. Each child receives a plate of rice and lentils with a little bit of chicken topped with yoghurt sauce and a side dish of simple salad. For dessert there are fresh oranges picked from the trees outside.  I join a group of children at a table and I feel like an elephant among a family of little mice, but I sit down to enjoy my meal. The children around are eager to talk to me. All of them without exception are refugee children or “internally displaced persons”. Apparently, most of them come from Homs and Aleppo but there are also some from Raqqa and from Idlib which is still under rebel control.

(Photo: EMS/Gräbe)

It is a wonderful project. A remarkable number of children, most of them with their families, had found refuge here. From the initial figure of 30 children, the numbers had risen to a “peak” of 95 two years ago. The present figure of 70 is practically the maximum number for the centre to run efficiently at full capacity. Every summer during the last five years, more than twenty children had left the centre in a good stabilised condition. Most of the children had then been accepted at normal schools despite the school’s precarious location in a region that is overrun by internally displaced refugees. In the meantime, as I was informed by my contact, the point has been reached when the Syrian government authorities were now in a position to provide regular schooling to all the children in Wadi Nasara (including internally displaced refugees). Although this has been achieved with enormous effort under less than ideal conditions (normally with over 40 children in a class), at least it was a start. By the way, this is one of the key factors to indicate the success of the project - that no child has to stay on the streets. Admittedly, the Syrian regime is pursuing a totally different interest – Assad wants to demonstrate that things are returning to normal. And internally displaced persons who come from regions which had been occupied or retaken by government troops were kindly requested to return as soon as possible.

(Photo: EMS/Gräbe)

At the same time, the stabilisation which the project has achieved not only affects the children but also the teachers. All of them are also internally displaced and have again brought back a routine to their lives (and a small income) through their work here. They have done their utmost to reach out to the “right” children – I mean those whose need is the greatest. And they work with incredible competence and commitment.

by Uwe Gräbe, Middle East Liaison Secretary of the EMS and Executive Secretary of the EVS