THursday, November 14th
I woke up early to get ready for teacher training. Mustafa and I had nescafe and talked about Teacher training. I apologized for falling asleep so early last night.
"How did you meeting with crazy guy go?" I asked. "He hasn't shot fire on the school busses yet so its possible that he is just bluffing." I had said.
"Well," he began. I knew that it was going to be a good story based on the face he made when he was starting the story.
"Well... I went to meet the guy and I told him, okay I want to settle this. I will just pay you whatever I have for the days I used your school for registration. But paying $5000 was ridiculous. I don't have that kind of money and neither does the American girl. Nobody does. I cannot get it from anyone." He was smoking his ciggarrette as he recalled the story. "Sama, I told him I don't have it. He said very bad words to me and told me the most he will lower the amount to is $3000. He feels as if I have stabbed him in the back."
"After I left his house, I saw 5 angry men walking towards me. I knew they were there for me and I didn't want to make a scene on the street. So they pulled me into the alleyway and grabbed me by the neck. Then I talked to them until they finally let me go. THey said, 'this is the last warning, we don't want to hurt you but this is what we do for a living and we make our living off of it. You seem like a nice guy so just solve your problem with him.' I told them that I am trying to do my best to solve it but he is making it very difficult for me. Sama, this is a very dangerous time and the guy is serious, I need you to not go anywhere by yourself. Stay in the school or stay in the house, and I know you are adventurous and like to do things, but please, they know you are here and are making threats. "
"Im glad you are okay." I said to him. We then joked about how one of the guys gave him a cigarette. Arab hospitality, even in a situation like that!
I got to school a bit earlier than the teachers and starting organizing all the school supplies into storage bins that I had purchased
School was off for a locally recognized holiday called Ashura. We took advantage of this and decided that we could do a longer teacher training on a day when the teachers were not in school.Kids had the day off for Ashura. We did a 5 hour training. played games, epr, teaching techinques...
I went to go withdraw money from an ATM in Tripoli and then went exploring the Old streets of Tripoli for 20 mintues... just in time to buy fish for a rooftop bbq the following day.
In short, Friday we finished the Teacher Training... I finally met OMAR!!! Finally, an art teacher applicant who looks creative and capable. I told him to come to school the next day and he can help me with the mural. I wanted to see how he interacts with kids.
After the teacher training, we went home and had a wonderful fish bbq on the roof. The whole family interacted and I got to spend some more one on one time with his nieces and nephews. The more time I spent with them, the more I loved each and every one of them.
My eyes shot open. Mom had made me nescafe. Thanks Mom! I was trying to figure out in my head the way to involve 350 students in one mural without it turning into a chaotic nightmare. How do I let them all express themselves, touch paint, and make a masterpiece, all in 4 days?! Considering the school is only about 4 hours each day. That gives me 16 hours to do a mural. Anyone who has worked with kids knows that you can divide that time in half since half of this time goes to instructions. I decided to take it one day at a time. First, I will get the first graders and second graders to do the basic stuff. First graders can paint the sky and the second graders can paint the grass. Then, I have no idea whats going to happen. I know I need to get them out two times to paint, once to paint their background part of the mural and the other time to paint what their dreams were.
I was wearing my solid black dress when I began this project. I was excited walking to school this day. I had a lot to do. Not only was the mural starting but also had a teacher training to prepare for the afternoon. And in the middle of all of that, I had to interview another teacher.
No matter how many times I've done a mural before, there is always a new dynamic.. things you wish you had thought of ahead of time. One of those things was an announcement I wish I had said at the morning assembly. I wish I had said "All Children will get to paint. Every class will get a turn." But I didn't think about that.
The ramifications of such actions resulted in kids scampering out of their classrooms the entire day "to get water" or "use the bathroom" and would come up to me and ask me if they could paint too.
"Wait a second, you are in 5th grade! Back to your class. You will get a turn in these next few days. Don't worry!"
Everyone was worried. Worried that there was paint happening outside and that their turn would be forgotten.
I first started with paintbrushes. I watered down the paint and pulled out 30 flat headed paintbrushes.
I put the kids in a half cirlce and said " All of you will get a turn. Please wait till I give you your brush. Then you can go to any of those palettes and dip your brush in it. Point to the wall we are painting" I said. Pointing with them to the one and only wall we were working on. I repeated it again just to make sure that no 1st grade wanderers ended up painting in areas they weren't supposed to be in.
It was going well, I thought. Except that it was painfully slow. I had instructed the kids on how to hold a brush and how to do a proper brush stroke. Most kids were still holding the brush way to far away from the bristles. These were long brushes and the kids had never touched a brush let alone paint in their lives. I had an idea.
"Abu Ali!" Abu Ali was the groundskeeper and everything extraordinaire. There was nothing he couldn't do. He taught a class when there was no teacher, he made coffee for everyone, he made sure the kids didn't miss their bus. He was everything to the kids.
Abu ALi was wandering out and I asked him for some sponges. First he brought the kitchen sponge. Then I told him we were going to need about 15 sponges. 10 minutes later, there were 15 sponges. Thats how awesome he is.
While I was asking for sponges. I turned around and saw that a little Dr.Suess looking kid, with high pigtails was painting on the black metal door of the school. She had the largest smile on her face. Out of instinct, I ran up to her and snagged the paint brush out of her hand.
" Not this wall. Did we not talk about this?" I asked her. While her and I were talking, kids near me who were holding the brush clumsily would paint an accidental stroke of blue on my dress. I sort of noticed but my attention was focused on this little girl with a huge grin on her face, the girl who had just graffitied the wall.
She just smiled up at me and kept on smiling. "You are all done! Did you not paint your part already?" I asked. She nodded. "Okay wash your hands and go back to class."
"I'm here for the interview" another teacher said. I turned to talk to her for a moment. " Okay, today is pretty crazy. Im going to ask for your help in working with the kids on the mural project. I want to see how you work with kids, then I can interview you on what you know about art."
She agreed. She was in her early twenties and wore a brightly colored scarf. I liked that about her but the one thing she was lacking was a smile. She was very serious, and for me, a smile was extremely important. My talk with her instantly came to a hault when I noticed the little Dr. Seuss girl painting the wall again, after I had just scolded her about that.
"Okay, thats it kid, you are officially kicked out of the mural." I told her.
I regretted it. I regretted that moment. She didn't listen, but her soul was just yearning to paint more. I wish I had filmed it as an observation of her psychological state of mind instead of treating her like a kid who was not following the rules. She still had a HUGE grin on her face, as if she had accomplished her goal and then scampered off to class.
The art teacher helped me out quite a bit with the rest of the mural project, but there was something about her self confidence that was lacking. The smile was not there. I NEEDED a shining personality to be the art teacher, someone who brought joy with them wherever they went. Someone who kids were excited to see. That was one of my main qualifications actually.
By the end of the day, we had painted the sky. It was an accomplishment. My dress had blue brush strokes all over it. I had given into the idea of getting paint on my dress and decided to make my dress the "refugee kid paint dress" and that the paint from the kids would be a souvenir for me to remember.
THE BOY WITH THE SYMBOLIC DRAWINGS
His name was Mazin... He looked like an anime cartoon character which big brown eyes, and a bit of a spike to his hair in the front. While visiting his classroom to let the 3rd grade class know that it would be their time soon, he handed me a folded up drawing. I could not believe that a 3rd grader could draw like that. The war was clearly a strongpoint in his life. I would be getting more of his drawings and they would start to have a pattern to them.
School let out. I leaned against the black iron gate with Lina and we watched the kids scamper out of the school. When they noticed we were sitting there, they would come back towards us and thank us for the backpacks, showing us how awesome they looked in it. They would ask Lina "Are you teaching us English tomorrow?"
"Yes" she would say. They would nod and run off.
In my moment of resting against the gate. I felt at peace. I loved seeing the school filled with children, coming and going. The kids would had me more drawings, flowers, and snacks. They would have given me the world if they had it. But would the world give them everything?
I thought of kids back home. Everything they have is an expectation. Eating out is an expectation. Getting a new "item" every day or every week is an expectation. Expectations ruin us. Expectations are healthy for certain things, like when going to the dentist, expecting the best care. Thats important.
I started this blog with no expectations, because I know that its great to plan and all but to expect things to go the way you think they will go will just be a complete let down. Kids here don't have expectations. They are just happy for what you do give them. They are grateful for the little things, such as education. I felt like I was sitting in a passageway of the divine.
After the kids left, the teachers and I all got together in the classroom to begin our teacher training. Mustafa placed an order from the zaatar lady for some food for the teachers. He first walked in to talk to the teachers before we started the 3 day teacher training program. This was to be separate from the art teacher training I would do later on. The purpose of this teacher training program was to empower the teachers with ways to handle the kids that would make their life easier and the kid's lives better. I was really there to put an end to the old-school mentality. In Syria, many schools were run like a military academy. This style of teaching is engrained into many teachers. Even though it doesn't feel like the right way for them, this is what they are used to.
" In my school, there is no hitting or yelling at the kids." he began. Sama has come from America to teach us techniques and offer a cultural exchange. We have much to learn about how education is done in America. We are lucky to have her, and I expect all of you to take notes on what she is teaching you. You will also have to implement it and I will be following up with all of you to see the strategies you are using."
One teacher raised her hand. "Yes I am excited to learn and we have learned lots of neat techniques in college but we were never allowed to use any of them in Syria." One teacher said.
"Well, in my school, I want to hear you having fun with the kids. I want to see smiles on their faces. School should be enjoyable." he said. With that, he turned the floor to me.
"Salamu Alaikum" I said.
"Wa Alaikum Assalam" they replied.
"I am sure you are tired from teaching and I thank you for being here. I know that the things we will learn together in the next few days will be beneficial for you and for the kids. You can either go to school every day feeling stressed. Telling kids to sit down, be quiet, sit still, don't yell, don't do this, don;t do that, and by the end of the day you are exhausted - OR - you can learn a bunch of cool tricks and psychological techniques and turn learning into something very fun, not just for them but for you as well. You are in a unique situation. You are dealing with kids who have gone through so much up until this point. We have a responsibility as adults in their life to be more than a teacher... to be a mentor, a friend, an ear, and 4 hours of something so positive that it could heal them."
They were were nodding while I was telling them these things.
"In life, we can either do what we have always done and we will get the same results or we can try something different and get new results. If you are having a hard time with certain kids in class and do what you have always done, the same thing will always happen. In the next few days, lets open our mind and our hearts, and lets think outside of the box, because this is where the heart of kids reside- outside of the box."
With that, teacher training began. I wrote all their struggles on the chalkboard and we approached them one by one. I could write about every little detail, but that would just make this a longer blog than it already is.
After training, Lina, Mustafa, my mom, and I walked up the steep alleyway back to Mustafa's house. On the way, Lina and I noticed how funny it was that everyone in the village liked to come and look out of their windows. It felt like that scene in the beginning of Beauty and the Beast when all the people looked out of their windows as she walked by. Lina saw some chickens and went nuts.
"Sama! I love chickens. I want a picture with a chicken."
I couldn't tell you how happy it made me that she was this passionate about a chicken. Anyone who was this passionate about a chicken had a good head on their shoulders. Lina spent a few minutes taking pictures of the chickens. I looked up and noticed that every window in site had a person watching from the second floor, wondering why the hell a person would like a chicken that much.
My heart was smiling for this moment. In fact, there were hardly any moments when it was not smiling.
I got home and then Mustafa had to go meet crazy death threat guy. I had not taken one nap since I had arrived and jet lag finally caught up to me. I took a "nap" and did not wake up till 6 am the next day. I was out.
Hi. I'm a Syrian-American Artist, writer, and educator with far too much thirst for adventure.
Trip to Turkey, 2012
The Road to the Refugees
This blog captures my trip in 2012 (solo) to Turkey to go look for Syrian Refugees and offer them aid. It also captures my second humanitarian trip in November 2013 to open a school and start an art therapy program in Tripoli, Dier Ammar, Lebanon.
It will now capture my 2017 GREECE trip to help refugees.