FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
I woke up to the sounds of gunshots and the Adhan, the call to prayer. The gunshots were in the distance, and the Adthan was right next door. The sky was still dark, slowly turning pink. The first few minutes were grounding. I forgot where I was for a second until I was gently reminded by the orchestra of roosters and the waving of laundry hanging out to dry, a view I could see from my window. Wide awake, and time for Nescafe! The only thing I personally picked out from the grocery store expedition that Abu Mahmoud took us on the day before. He had picked us up from the airport and since its dangerous to drive through Tripoli on a Thursday Night, we spent the night in Beirut and continued to Dier Ammar on Friday. Abu Mahmoud insisted that the village I am going to has nothing, and that I must have tuna.
Tuna? Why do I need Tuna? Yes, it is a very odd suggestion, but in his generous way he insisted that I follow him into the grocery store. 5 grocery bags later, filled with cans, nescafe, Nido milk, cans of tuna, cans of garbanzo beans, hummus, shampoo, and soap, we were on our way to Dier Ammar. We went through approximately 4 checkpoints through Tripoli to get to Dier Ammar.
Tripoli had been in the news a lot up until coming to the region. On our way, Mostafa Al-Haj, principal of the school I was headed to, had a lot to point out. Over there is the mosque that just got blown up. Over here is Jabl Nusra, over there is Tebani. "These areas have had Allawite and Sunni clashes for many years. THis is why there are checkpoints. "
I layed in my bed, which they insisted I had, as guest of the house, and stared at the ceiling. Back home, they pay money to make buildings look cracked and old, "vintage" they call it. This was the real deal. I jumped out of bed eager to make coffee and watch the sunrise from the Alladin rooftop. The unfinished constrcution would be a hazard zone in California, but in this hillside mountainous town overlooking the Meditteranean, this unfinished cement building was a playground for their 15 or so children relatives that freely floated between the homes of his relatives.
I stumbled into the kitchen and noticed it seemed to be one of those gas burners that needed a match to start. The Nescafe was staring me straight in the face, but there were no smokers in sight.. (the one time in an Arab country where you wish there was a smoker around so you could bum a match or lighter off of them).
Nescafe would have to happen later.
Another gunshot sound. Now it was non-stop. I looked out from my window and all in the town seemed peaceful and quiet. Tripoli seemed to be where the trouble was coming from but I wasn't sure.
When Mustafa woke up, we figured out the nescafe situation. He had never tried nescafe before, and it was the closest I could find here to American coffee.. Nestle corporation tends to run small villages like that. He was insistant on his arabic coffee until he had a sip, then he was hooked. We took our coffee up to the rooftop and went over the days schedule. It was the first day of school and there was a lot of things that needed to happen. Books needed sorting, backpacks needed to be bought, class lists needed printing, teachers needed to be finalized and interviewed. Remember, lack of funding was the reason why this school had not opened sooner and now that the generous guy donated the money, he rallied a group of teacher volunteers from his last school, all with degrees, and got the school rolling. He didn't want another day to go by that the kids were out of school. To him, the only educated sibling from his simple villager family, who could read and write, not only Arabic but English as well, education was the core foundation of emancipation. He had left his village in Idlib for years to study at the university of Damascus, where he studied English Literature. He stresses the importance of education in his household, since schooling changed his life and broadened his horizons.
There is a crevice where two mountains that embrace this village meet, and from that crevice, the sun peaks up to greet the day. The spot is just perfect, like it knew that if it rose from anywhere else on the hillside, it would not be as magnificent.
Amaani and Alaa, his nieces come up to the rooftop and announce that breakfast is ready. These 7th and 8th grade girls take on the responsibilities of their siblings, of running the household, of making food, of seeing to guests, of doing laundry. They are not pushed to, but they do it from their hearts, without complaining. They are happy when you tell them you do want coffee or you do want tea. They are happy when you catch them singing while they are doing their laundry. But underneath those smiles are stories, underneath the laughs are masked cries from what they have endured.
Breakfast is beautiful. Its a spread of olives, eggs, pickled eggplant, thyme, olive oil, and lots of bread. We eat on the ground and in shifts. First the older people eat, then the younger people it.
As Im eating breakfast, I notice Mohammad, a little 7 year old boy in the household, getting ready for school. He is laying out 5 shirts he owns on the ground and excitedly deciding which is best for the first day of school. The kids are excited beyond belief. School is their chance to learn, to do something for themselves. Its probably also a chance to get away from house chores. Here, house chores run the life of a child, unlike in America where parents slave over their children to ensure the best private tutors, the best extra curricular enrichment. The kids here are enriched in manners, enriched in gratitude for the little things they have.
We hike down the steep road through ancient alleyways till we get to school. The principal crams the teachers in his office. IN the meantime, parents arrive looking for where to register their students. THey keep coming in and out of his office, until the lawyer couple, a man and woman who are volunteering their time for the school, take over a classroom and make registration in a different room. THings are not organized but they are getting organized very quickly. Things that take months to prepare are handled in a matter of minutes. I half expect busses to forget kids, or for their to be a mixup. The busses were hired yesterday at 4:55 pm. The principal sent word to families that school started. He stayed up till 2 in the morning answering phone calls from parents asking where to have their kid wait. So, as the hand of the clock inched its way closer to the start of school, bus loads poured into the school. The first day, 100 were in attendance.
Kids looked at me curiously. I filmed from the second story as kids poured in from the black iron gate that was embedded into cobblestone rocks.
Mustafa emerged from his office and stood in front of the courtyard. Kids were so excited to see him they were running up to him to shake his hand. A young boy pulled his hand in closer to kiss him on the cheeks. The respect he carries at this school is obvious in his rapport with the parents, students, bus drivers, villagers who see him walking past their house.
Mustafa said one word and the chaotic noise of excitement came to a grinding hault. The kids looked up and listened. He then broke them up into boy and girl lines by grade. He announced which teacher will be handling which classroom, and from there, school started. Not one kid had a backpack or a pencil. But many were carrying a snack with them.
After the kids filed into the school, parents approached the principal telling him how thankful they are that school finally opened. Some were asking if they could withdraw their kid from the night school that is down the hill and put their kid in this school instead. Mustafa was insistant that they stay in the school they are at, so that the kids that have not had any school can enroll here and there could be space for them.
I opened the door to the first grade classroom. All the kids turned to look, eager and smiling as to what the girl with the cowboy hat was all about. You could see it in their eyes, someone out of the box, a cartoon character perhaps visiting their classroom.
"Im Sama. Im from America but my family is from Syria. Do you want to do an art project together?"
"Yes!" They all nodded excitedly.
"Okay, what do you think about painting a huge painting on the wall outside?"
"Yes, yes! " They cheered
" Okay, I will be visiting your class in the next two days and asking you to draw symbols that reflect what you want to be when you are older. You can be anything you want! Lawyer, Artist, Doctor, Nurse, Filmmaker.... Is there anyone here who would like to tell me what they want to be be when they grow up?"
One kid with a wide face and blue eyes raised his hand.
"I want to be a doctor" he said proudly. All the other hands went up except for a few.
"I want to be an Artist" a little girl said.
"I want to be a soldier" a boy said.
"Okay" I said. "Remember, of all the things in the world you can be, you can do whatever you want when you grow up but you have to study hard everyday."
I drew an example of what an artist's tools look like on the board. I drew an easel, a paintbrush, a paint palette, and a canvas.
I then proceeded with a story... one I know very well that these kids needed to hear. Once upon a time, there was a boy. He was 11 years old and this boy grew up in Damascus. His parents were not very rich but he had big dreams. He dreamed that one day, he will be a pilot. This little boy used to come home from school and gather scrap parts and build pretend airplanes. He would fly them around the house using his hand and making sounds with his mouth. As he grew older, his tools changed. What was once an old tissue box was now a metal part, and fake wings were now metal. This boy worked very hard as a child, between studying and working, and saved a lot of money from the work he did. When he was 18, he had a plan. He decided to go to America to study to become a pilot. Well guess what? HE went. His grades were so good that the school let him go for free and today guess what he is?
"A pilot!" they all said.
"Yes, a Pilot. You are right!" I confirmed. "That little boy was my father." I said. And today, not only is he a pilot but he travels all over the world to fix airplanes. "
This was the message I gave to every class. The idea was there is hope. There is hope to still dream big, to be what you want, but you must teach yourself as much as possible. You must ask good questions.
After school, I went with the lawyer and Mustafa to Tripoli to buy art supplies and backpacks. We had a very important discussion while deciding which backpacks to purchase. I gave him my budget for this project and we talked extensively about the difference in the quality of the backpacks. Last year, the organization that funded the school bought cheapy backpacks for all the kids. by the 2nd week, they had holes in them and the zippers weren't working on any of them. We had a choice. We could either buy cheapy backpacks, 400 of them. OR, we could be sustainable.
"Everytime you buy something, the environment pays a price for it." I said. " If you buy something that is made well, then it will last these kids year after year and you won't need to keep on buying it, and exploiting the earths resources." I said.
"The shop owner looked at me and said "Your thinking is about 200 lifetimes away from ours. We will need a long time to catch up to that way of thinking"
We all decided on the backpacks that were well made, jansport quality, that had 1 year warranties.
We bought 400 rulers, 1000 notebooks, 400 pens, 100 erasers (Since I had brought some that had been donated), reams of paper, staplers, hole punchers, and other basic school supplies.
It was 9 pm by the time we got home. Mustafa and I stayed up till 12 planning for the next day. We had to be up early the next morning but had lots of work to do.
I went to bed that night with a sense of satisfaction. I came to focus on an art program but am helping to build a school first, before we can dive into the art program. The art program will happen and is happening, but my project will take a year to complete and possibly 2 years before you can even see the result of it. For this reason, the foundation of this school needs to be strong, and Syrian refugee schools in Lebanon, from what Ive been hearing from many people, have weak foundations due to third parties sucking the donations out of offshore funders and managing the school while pocketing the other half of the money.
"The reason I declined the be the principal this school year was because the organization that wanted to run it wanted me to charge $300 per student per year. There is no way a Syrian Refugee can afford that. So I declined and decided to open up another school and try to find SYrians who will fund the school. One to pay for the rent, the other to pay for the chairs and tables. Sama, I am building this school from the ground up but I am confident I will succeed. And if you weren't here, I wouldn't be able to handle this on my own. Im sorry that you came and that the school is barely starting, but I am confident that we will do great things together." Mustafa had said to me earlier. He says a lot of "leader quotes" throughout the day. I wish I wrote down half the stuff that comes out of this guys mouth.