Friday, 7 April 2017

Finding Partners to Protect Syria's Children

By Naima Thompson

On our way to Turkey from Dubai, a million thoughts raced through my mind. I wondered what my Dad really thought, knowing I am heading close to the Syrian border to bring Necessary Arts to Gaziantep and to Syrian refugee children. I wondered about our safety; I had no idea what to expect. Theresa and I arrived at our hotel, ordered dinner, unpacked, and crashed for the night readying ourselves for what would be  a hectic schedule of meeting NGOs who might be prepared to partner with Necessary Arts . We started bright and early. Tarek, our second point of contact on this visit, sent his associate Azza, a young Syrian humanitarian working for IHSAN (a cross border humanitarian group), to meet  us at the hotel and to escort us to the Syrian NGO headquarters. She smiled warmly as she explained her role with IHSAN and its role in disaster relief. They are mandated to work only in Syria, but with the ongoing conflict they have managed to set up an office in Gaziantep where they respond remotely to their team on the ground in Syria. Their program is monitored on a weekly basis to ensure that participants, both parents and children alike, receive the protective and psychotherapeutic program as intended. We then shared with her the services of Necessary Arts. Right away she recognized the value we could bring to the crisis at hand and we prepared ourselves to collect Tarek and then head over to our next meeting.

After a bit of a false start at our first official meeting with UNICEF,  representatives Samuel and David, explained that they were spearheading the cross-border response section and had no jurisdiction in Turkey. Before I could despair, Samuel quickly exited to find Ender, from the Turkish UNICEF branch whose unit was just upstairs, to meet us and to discuss a possible partnership. Ender was enthusiastic about the possibility of  working with us once he learnt of our services. He suggested that we send him an outline of how our program could be part of a teacher training initiative here in Turkey.
As we waited for the driver on the sidewalk outside the unmarked building, I said to Azza and Tarek: Even to engage in dialogue is a win. I meant it. I felt privileged to be part of discussions to find solutions for the 2.7 million Syrian children displaced here in Gaziantep. As we left the UNICEF offices and headed back to the hotel, I could already feel the weight of our mission. As promised, I quickly scripted an email to Ender outlining our intended program involving the use of techniques from Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed to reach the traumatized children under his jurisdiction.

In  our second meeting, this time at the IHSAN headquarters with representatives from an anonymous organization whose mission is to work holistically, draw on extensive implementation experience and share responsibility for achieving objectives with partners, we discussed with two representatives the possibilities of teacher training for Syrian teachers who hope to visit Gaziantep in July. I sat across from the two women and wondered how many times they had met with people like us. I wondered if they believed in us and how far they will go to convince their team to bring us on board. They asked us to send them a sample program of work and a budget outlining the cost to bring NAS back in July. If they decide to partner with us it will be the beginning of a purposeful, sustainable mission.

The next day I woke at six o’clock to the sound of my  alarm. As I reached for the cell, I remembered I hadn’t heard from anyone concerning site visits to children centers. I sluggishly constructed messages to Tarek , Clara, and Azza. The request was simple: Can you please follow up on finding a center for us to visit? I pushed the sleep button on the cell and drifted off to sleep. It was only after Theresa woke me, that I realized just how much the previous day's visits had worn me out, but I couldn't succumb to fatigue. I picked up my cell to check for an update, and there it was, a message from Azza:  “We have centers to visit today. So if you are ready, we can go in an hour.” We were getting into the company car within the hour and on our way to pick up the contact person, Jehad. Before we knew it, Ruba, the director of The New World Academy, an education center for Syrian and Turkish children, had greeted us and kindly offered us the standard offer of Turkish tea or Syrian coffee. During  our meeting, an  outcome was quickly confirmed: Necessary Arts would return in July to work with children aged seven to twelve using puppets and and other manipulatives.

Our emphasis on the notion of sustainability resonated with the agencies we met with. Other organizations had come and gone doing one-off workshops with no follow-up. We assured Ruba that Necessary Arts is insistent on and committed to follow-up and would stay in touch between visits to ensure continuity. After our meeting, Ruba took us  on a tour of the school showing us classrooms which were bright, clean, and colorfully decorated with paintings of Disney-like characters. The children responded to our hellos with “Hello, how are you?” Pictures were taken of us among smiling children, but I knew that behind the smiles were realities too remote from my existence for me to ever understand them. We thanked Ruba and the children for their gracious hospitality and moved on to another education center.

Next we visited the Homes League Abroad Education Center which serves only  Syrian children who have been out of school for several years and are now catching up. Students are being taught English, Turkish and Arabic. The director, Obaida Abdulkader is hopeful that we can bring our drama program to strengthen the literacy of at least twenty students and, for continuity and sustainability, share strategies with the center’s teachers.  We toured the school with Jihad and Obaida; when he entered a classroom, he was met with cheers and loud, joyous voices. It was evident that Jihad’s psychotherapy work had in a short period of time already made an impact on their lives. As the tour came to an end, we were serenaded with a Syrian national song. At the director’s request, we will submit a program of work in Arabic for him to discuss with their CEO and, we hope, be invited to conduct our program in July.

Azza appeared  anxious to leave, but it was not until two hours later that I understood why. As we visited children who had escaped the horrors of the Syrian crisis, an incomprehensible misfortune had struck her hometown of Idlib. A lethal gas, possibly Sarin,  had been released on the town killing up to 70 and injuring up to 500. I got the news as I sat with Theresa that evening, creating a video short of the happy children we had met full of hope earlier. Now, it was four in the afternoon and we had to head back to the IHSAN headquarters for our final meeting of the day with Ahmad Shiekhan, a psychotherapist and master trainer in the Mental Health & Psychosocial Network,  MHPSS.  The air was thick with melancholy as  we entered the room. Despite the tragic loss of life and a great sense of despair, it was clear this team and their partners would not allow the situation to derail a meeting which might  ultimately lead to restoring hope.

Ahmad shared with us his position and interests. We shared ours. The enormity of the work required became crystal clear.  We charted our different connections with organizations to explore if our shared  goals could be met. He made calls to key personnel in an anonymous organization and INSAN. His enthusiasm toward our possible contributions was not in any way subtle and before we knew it three unexpected meetings were put in place. One would be with an INSAN and the other with Hurras. The third would be another member of an anonymous team with programs based in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

We headed back to the hotel both encouraged and inspired by the resilience of the Syrian people we had only just met and now had to leave in what felt like their darkest moment. How on earth, we wondered,  were they able to carry on given what had just happened in Idlib. It was quite remarkable to witness. But back in our room, my stomach knotted and a deep sense of despair set in as Al Jazeera updated events of the day. Theresa, grounded as always, suggested we take a walk in the brisk evening air and step away from the news for a bit. We did.

Our final day in Gaziantep was upon us. A flustered, but well-groomed young man, Anas, from INSAN, met us  in the hotel lobby. He had been delayed by a taxi driver too stubborn to listen to directions. Anas very quickly and clearly shared his company’s background and his reason for making every effort to get to us.  The vision of INSAN, is for communities free of hunger and poverty, full of human values, where no one is left behind and each person can be a productive part of society. He turned out not to be the psychotherapist we expected; but in fact a business manager for the organization. He had been sent because, in fact, he was the only one on the ground in Gaziantep who spoke fluent English. Fortunately, in the short time we had with him, we convinced him that he needed to convince his team to support our return in July to lay out a program of support.

Link to video: Looking for Learning in Gaziantep, Turkey

I looked at my watch for the first time since we had sat down and realized it was two minutes to ten and we had a five minute walk to our ten o'clock meeting with Dr. Ammar at the IHSAN headquarters. Thankfully, Dr. Ammar was also running late. While we waited we  chatted with our first point of contact, Khaldoun, a surprisingly spritely older gentleman with a white-sprayed beard and thin, soft hair. His laughter was infectious and his spirit quite light compared to the other members of the team. I wondered about his disposition and then he confirmed my suspicions. After many years in the trenches he was now on the sidelines watching the next generation run the machinery. He was their council and refuge it seemed. He shared with us his involvement when they were based in Syria and the challenges he lead his team through as they set up operations in Turkey.

Once photos were taken and gifts were handed out, our intended meetings for the day began. Two representatives from Hurras, Karam and Rahaf entered the conference room and after quick introductions we got straight to it. It seemed as if they had come to see how rather than if we can form a partnership. They were into the business of project management and had teams of trainers on the ground in three areas of Syria: Idlib, Daraa, and Douma. These trainers were training others in the community to address the various psychosocial needs of children and women primarily and, in some instances, senior citizens. They were keen to understand the work of NAS and our intended program of work. One issue both parties felt very strongly about was understanding and tailoring a program to meet beneficiaries’ specific needs. In addition to the cross border response teams, they also have beneficiaries on the ground here in Turkey. A plan emerged for us to pursue the possibility of working with up to twenty children aged between eleven and sixteen and trainers over a span of about a week with a  break at midpoint.

As we tried to work out the logistics, a worn yet gentle man entered the room. He immediately joined in the dialogue. Dr Ammar Beetar from SBF whose vision for Syria is a rising community enjoying psychosocial well- being, is a qualified psychiatrist-trainer, who has worked for humanity for many years. He put it quite plainly: We medically-trained workers need innovative ways to support the traumatized and displaced people of both Syria and Iraq who have absolutely no support systems in place for their recovery. He explained that he and his team have received minimal training in Forum Theatre strategies and have found the implementation to be extremely fruitful. Ultimately, we have to plan very carefully to raise the funds required to bring NAS to work in collaboration with the various psychotherapists working for humanity. After we all agreed that innovative approaches are the solution to bring about rehabilitation for the resilient people of Syria, Theresa and I thanked everyone and bolted for the airport.

Ahmad Sheikani had already spoken with Maen from an anonymous organization and brought him up to speed on what Necessary Arts is all about. This preamble made for a smooth and efficient cell phone dialogue between Maen and myself at 11:30 the following morning of our arrival to Istanbul. Maen was involved on the ground in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt and would find a way for us to be involved one way or the other.

The past three days were jam packed with meeting organizations all with the same mission in mind:
TO OFFER PROTECTIVE SERVICES TO THE SYRIAN PEOPLE both cross border and in Turkey and other satellite sites in neighboring countries. Necessary Arts is committed to being a part of the solution and look forward to returning to Gaziantep in July … Inshallah!

Thank you to all the organizations which met with us:

New World Academy:
Homs League Abroad:
And, most importantly, the team at IHSAN who were responsible for making these connections possible and for hosting us as graciously as they did.



    1. Thank you for your response. Can you identify yourself please?

  2. Naima thank you for sharing your journey. Necessary Arts is doing a magnificent job in reaching the unreachable and I am so very proud of you for all your accomplishments along the way.

    1. Thanks sis... you are one of the people in my life to teach me the meaning of humanity through your own treatment toward to me in my early years. Thank you for your kind example of compassion. God bless