Syrian-American architect Lina Sergie Attar is the founder of the Karam Foundation and its Zeitouna project which brings hope to Syrian displaced and refugee children, many of whom are traumatised, all of whom have lost great chunks of their schooling. Pulse co-editor Robin Yassin-Kassab participated in June’s Camp Zeitouna in the Atmeh camp on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. In this moving piece, originally published at the New York Times, Lina describes the workshop she led with the children in their hot and dusty tented school – mapping a floor plan of their abandoned homes – and what it meant to them. Please donate to the project and Karam’s other work inside Syria here.
by Lina Sergie Attar
“We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection.”
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Standing in a stuffy tent while facing over forty children crowded onto small benches, their dusty faces propped up by weathered, lean arms, I feel a bit nervous. They study me curiously. I tell them that I’m Syrian, from Aleppo, and that I’m an architect. I turn towards the cracked whiteboard and begin to draw with the streaky, half dried-up marker. “I haven’t been to my family’s home for over two years. When I miss it, I remember it like this.” Without turning around, I say, “Let me tell you a story about my home.”
After enduring two and a half years of the grueling brutality that defines Syria, the fall of Assad’s regime is no longer the most pressing concern of most Syrians. Rather, “When will we return home?” is the question that haunts the over seven million displaced Syrians. Of course, the fact that the first concern is the reason the second one exists adds to the country’s mass despair.
Last winter in Atmeh, the largest of Syria’s border camps for the internally displaced, the longing to return home was repeated to me over and over — sometimes in anger, other times in sorrow. I could not answer their inquiry, “Will we ever return home?” except with the traditional, “God willing.” A response that should have been comforting if my wavering voice hadn’t betrayed my uncertainty.
When I returned to Atmeh last June, the camp had doubled in size from 12,000 to over 24,000 people who had fled their villages and towns to seek refuge in rows of tents between the olive trees — literally in no man’s land. They were as I had left them, still surviving without running water, electricity, and adequate sanitary services. The biting cold of December had been exchanged with the suffocating summer heat. The snow-white tents were now permanently coated with brown dirt streaks. The camp which had been still in formation a few months before, now felt unsettlingly settled.
I did not return alone. I returned with a team of Syrian expatriates to hold an educational mentorship program for displaced children called Zeitouna. The idea behind Zeitouna was to inspire and engross Syrian children with creative and athletic workshops that would engage their young minds. We returned to show them that they mattered. And that they had not been forgotten.
Every morning, after waiting anxiously sometimes for over an hour to cross the Turkish checkpoint, our team of six would enter the camp and find a small crowd of children waiting for us at the gate. “Good morning, Miss, good morning, Miss.” They held out their thin hands to shake ours. We took as many palms as we could into our own. “Miss, miss, miss,” they said over and over in their singsong voices trying to capture my attention. I can still hear that ringing refrain in my mind, “Anseh, anseh, anseh.” They insisted that we notice them, talk to them, and take their picture.
So hand in hand we walked down the dirt road that splits the camp down the middle. A third of the way down we made a left and a few minutes later we arrived to their school which would be Zeitouna’s home base for the next week. It was named al-Awdeh, or the Return.
Al-Awdeh School is made up of a group of tents in a clearing between the olive trees. We held meetings in one of the tents with the administration to discuss logistics. The group of twenty young teachers and administrators — who live in the camp and work at the school for minimal wages — did their best to act “official” as we squeezed around the plastic white tables. They offered us tea and coffee. They told us they worked in the school because they were tired of waiting. They had been activists in their villages and towns, part of the revolution, and now they had been reduced to living in a tent and waiting to return. Working at the school was a way to reclaim a sliver of control over their lives.
We split the grades up into various workshops and began. For four days, we took over the school, teaching 500 children how to draw, make posters, play soccer, take care of their teeth, create a visual storyboard, and write their names in beautiful Arabic calligraphy.
My workshop was called Mapping Memory. I explained, “Drawing a floor plan is like slicing the top of a building off and looking down at the rooms from above.” I drew wall thicknesses and door symbols, just as I had learned twenty years ago at the University of Aleppo, in that same Faculty of Architecture that was bombed almost one year ago. I spoke to the children through my black and blue marker lines, remembering, “This is where I used to sit for lunch every day with my mother and my father and my brother and my other brother.” I drew the round table and colored it blue. I drew our living room, my bedroom and the large balcony where I spent so many June days just like this one, only many years before. “This is where I used to read, this is where I used to watch TV, this is where I used to…”
I drew and drew and did not stop speaking. I don’t know why I chose the floor plan, the least expressive of architectural drawings, for such an visceral and intimate exercise. A perspectival sketch may have been better. It tells you how a space feels. Vertical sections show scale — how the human body fits in a space. Even an elevation would tell you what a building looks like, its colors, textures, and materials. But floor plans? They’re technical drawings that explain how spaces fit together. Maybe that’s why I chose it: to seek distance in the cold abstraction of this diagrammatic sketch of my childhood home on a whiteboard in a tent, an hour’s drive away from the real place that I could no longer reach.
After I finished, I asked the students to draw the floor plans of their homes. As I pulled the pristine A3 sheets from the package, their eyes grew wide. Nothing in the camp was as bright as those white sheets of paper; they almost glowed in the dim tent. I passed out unused sharpened pencils, soft unblemished erasers, shiny plastic erasers, everything new in a place where everything felt worn and damaged. Even the kids. Even me.
They began to draw. Their homes were smaller than mine, with only two or three rooms. They drew expansive gardens while mine was an apartment without land around it. They intuitively incorporated three-dimensional elements to their staircases and furniture, adding depth to the flat plans. They colored the objects they remembered most. Some rooms remained empty. They brought their filled pages to me. Some of the papers were folded in half because there was not enough space to spread out on the cramped desks. They stood at the front of the tent facing their friends and told a story about their home, pointing to the drawing to guide us. Each page was marked with a name: Dalal, Fattoum, Ahmad, Abd al-Aziz. Most ended their story with variations of the same sentiment: I want to return. I want to go home.
I ended each workshop with the same words: “You will return; we all will. But Syria will need you to rebuild then and you cannot rebuild without an education, without staying in school. Maybe you will become architects and rebuild your homes, villages, and towns again.” I say these words so many times over the four days that by the last day, even I believed them.
At the border gate in the morning, I tried to say hello and smile at each and every child. But of course I must have missed a few. To embrace every one of the thousands of children who live in the camp is impossible. You make peace with failure. You have gotten used to failure when it comes to Syria. You know now that you can only focus on what you can do and not what you cannot. So you focus on the little face right in front of you, and accept that the others have become a blur.
One face comes into focus. Her name is Fattoum. Her hair is so blond it’s almost white. She is about ten years old. From the second day of our mission, she was the one I looked for. She came to my workshop twice even though everyone was only supposed to come once. The second time she attended she hid between a row of girls but her striking hair exposed her between the others as she drew her floor plan again. Her garden was twice as big as the house and it was made of rows of green and blue hearts.
I asked her afterwards alone in the central yard between the class-tents, “Why did you come back to my workshop instead of doing a new one?” She said, “Because I liked you. I want to be an architect now.” And then, “Can you take me home with you?”
I smiled at her while hiding my tears. I studied her for a few moments while my mind raced with irrational logistics. She was a bit older than my oldest daughter. I could imagine her living with my family. I already imagined her in my life. But I said, “No, your life is here with your family.” She replied cheerfully, “Okay!” and ran off, unaware that she had left me devastated.
From afar, through streams of humanitarian organizations’ grim reports and the media’s cold eyes, these very children are called “Syria’s lost generation.” Maybe if I weren’t Syrian, I would have said the same. But in my eyes, these children were not lost. We had failed them.
At the end of each day when we crossed back into Turkey, we were covered with a layer of dirt that we would soon wash off in a hotel room. The people of Atmeh have a months-old layer of this dirt on them. Water was a luxury. They live in tents that are steaming hot in the summer. If they sleep under the olive trees to escape the heat, they are attacked by blood-thirsty mosquitos. I had seen them when they were freezing months before. This December, they will be freezing again. And the seasons pass. Burning heat and freezing cold, burning heat and freezing cold.
Every time they will be a little more settled. Every time, the temporary camp will be more permanent and their real homes like dreams of the past, distant memories of places left behind. Places to tell stories about using sentences that start with, “That’s where I used to…”
Syrians did not take to the streets during the fateful spring of 2011 only to dream of home two years later. Syrians did not risk their lives to chant in front of bullets and tanks only to be reduced to a nation-sized humanitarian handout. Syrians did not revolt because they were hungry or cold. They revolted for dignity and freedom. Instead, they were rewarded for their courage with mass humiliation and unimaginable cruelty. As one young woman in the camp said, “I’d rather die than live like this.”
The children’s drawings that I carried back to America haunt me. I touch them softly, now treasuring the remaining grains of dirt on my fingertips. The grains have almost completely disappeared now. The pages grow smoother, the drawings fainter, but the marks will never fade away completely.
Syria’s children are not lost. They are waiting. Like we all are. Waiting to return. Waiting to pick up the pieces, to begin mending what can be mended and spend the rest of our lives wondering how it all went wrong. Wondering why things didn’t go according to our plans. Wondering if this fight was worth the loss, worth the pain, worth the blood. We wait. And in the meantime we draw our homes and dream of return.
I probably will never see Fattoum again. I hope she is safe with her family, fed and warm, still going to school, still drawing. Maybe she will become an architect. Maybe some dreams will be a reality for the ones you focused on, the ones who chose to grab your hand tightly and not let go. As for the ones you left behind, in the blurry background, they remain in your memory as a promise. A promise to return and hold more children’s hands and tell them that you care, that you believe in them, that they matter.
And so you return to tell them we will return to Syria one day. You return to say these words as many times as needed. Until even you believe it.
Lina Sergie Attar is a Syrian-American architect. She is co-founder & president of Karam Foundation and co-founder of Zeitouna: an educational mentorship program for displaced Syrian children. She will be returning to Turkey in December to co-run Zeitouna Winter 2013 with a group of over 30 international mentors.