Issue Briefs

On a Mission to Learn: My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp (Part 1)


On a Mission to Learn: My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp

Abdulrahman Y. Idlbi

Before You Start:

This is my report for a trip I made to the Syrian-Turkish border in January 2013. I wanted to explore the refugee communities and know more about the kids there to help with designing learning environments for them. I was learning then, and still I am… I had to make many decisions on the spot, some were smart (I guess), some were not, and you’ll find me inferring and making conclusions throughout the text…

I’m so thankful for the kind people who provided me with advice, suggestions, and support or introduced me to more kind people who provided more help. In particular:

Qah refugee camp admins (specifically Mouaz) and volunteering teachers (Waseem and Abu-Abdul) for the great time I had (and lessons I learned)

Watan for the logistic support (specifically, Lama, Mulham, Jahed, Alaa and Mahmoud)

Amos Blanton, Hadia Zarzour and Lennis Echterling for advice on psychological and crisis intervention issues.

All the Gobos in Lifelong Kindergarten group for the infinite stream of ideas.

My partners in Nama team for…, well, starting this together 🙂

More pictures from the trip are in this gallery. Videos in this playlist (mostly of kids singing or telling their stories in Arabic).


Since March 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey[1] to escape turmoil back home, and millions became internationally displaced. There are huge needs to be met, and most of the aid providers and NGOs working with refugees are concentrating on meeting their prompt needs related to accommodation, food, clothing, and health. Little attention is paid to the educational and psychological needs of the kids although they make a considerable portion of the Syrian population[2].

Many children have been out of school for more than a year for various reasons. It’s either unsafe to go to school, the school has been destroyed, the school is occupied by displaced people[3], or there’s no school in the first place which is the case in many camps.

In addition to that, most of the kids have suffered as a result of the violent and brutal reaction of the Syrian regime. Many of them witnessed cases where parents, relatives or friends were injured, killed or detained, or at least heard many stories of that. Many lived for weeks under shelling. Even kids in relatively safe areas hear bombing and observe military aircrafts frequently.

A friend and I were approached in late October 2012 by an NGO working with Syrian kids, and were asked if we could suggest resources for teachers in schools. They were planning to start a school (the usual kind of school) and wanted to do some retouching to take into account what the kids have been through. The discussion evolved over time, and I suggested designing a totally different type of learning environment and activities. I had two concerns regarding school:

Best learning happens when kids are actively involved in the learning process creating things following their own interests, which is not usually the case at School.

School by design is a competitive environment. Kids, on the other hand, needed a safe, respectful and collaborative environment where they could develop the necessary resilience to come over their experiences.

I used to put it like this: the kids have gone through unconventional circumstances, so it makes no sense to educate them in conventional ways.

I drafted a short proposal concentrating on the basic principles that should govern the learning environment and activities. I didn’t focus on the particular content of the activities for two reasons: First, while the content itself is important, I thought what was more essential at that stage was how the children would react to it and transform it to reflect their (and their community’s) experiences, needs and interests. Second, having a sustainable model was one of my design criteria, so I wanted to build the learning activities on the resources and needs of the environment where the kids were living; and I lacked this information 😐

The second point was actually what made me decide to take the trip to the refugee camps. I didn’t plan particular activities to facilitate. Instead, I wanted to explore the environment, resources, needs, and how parents, teachers and kids perceived their situation and circumstances. The plan was visiting camps on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border, spending an extended amount of time in one of each.

Finding My Way Around

I arrived in Reyhanlı, Turkey in the late evening of December 31. Reyhanlı is a town near the border with a few thousand Syrian refugees living there. The NGO I contacted had an office there. As they were already planning to open a school, they had a database of candidate teachers.

During the next few days I met several kids and teachers who moved to the town from Syria a few months ago[4]. I held long meetings with several groups of teachers to learn more about their experiences and perceptions of the events and how kids could be helped. I started generally by asking the teachers about what they thought the major concerns/challenges that have to be addressed regarding kids in the current situation. Interestingly, the teachers reported psychological issues (e.g. fear, trust, dealing with loss and confidence) as top priorities. After that came physical needs (e.g nutrition and health care), then lacking access to school.

However, as soon as the discussion moved to how these priorities can be met, teachers tended to focus back on formal education taking place at school and the importance of meeting the curriculum requirements 😐 I realize their toolkit didn’t contain much to deal with the current situation. Anyway, it was good to know they were realizing the nature of the top challenges the kids were facing.

Reyhanlı had only three schools for Syrian kids, which can only host a small fraction of the total number of kids already in town. The schools were operated by foreign NGOs (Syrian expats), and the teachers were refugees themselves. Connecting with various Syrian activists I knew about several educational activities and networks that were held by volunteers in less safe environments inside Syria. I didn’t see or hear much of that in town.

I visited a school that hosted a few hundred refugee kids who were living in the town, and was founded by a Canadian NGO. Meeting with some of the administrative staff I found out that kids were instructed using the same old methods and using the current formal Syrian curriculum. They had 2 hours per weeks when a teacher would talk to the whole class about resilience. Talking more about this issue to a lady from the founding organization who happened to be visiting at the same time, she said they wanted to provide the kids with a more supportive and creative learning environment but they didn’t know how, and they lacked the means to provide the teachers with proper training to do more than they learned to do as traditional instructors.

On my third day, I accompanied a group of Syrian American activists on a trip to two relatively small camps inside Syria near the border. Each had a few thousand people living in tents. While my colleagues distributed aid and did some filming, I was initiating conversations with the people to learn more about the circumstances the kids went through. My strategy was simple: I’d greet a parent who was accompanied by their kids doing some work beside their tent, and ask them about their living. People were generous and eager to speak. They’d invite me immediately to have coffee or tea of the very little they brought with them, and then start telling their stories. During that, I gave the kids my camera, showed them briefly how to use it, and asked them to take pictures of whatever they liked while I was talking to their parents. I did that for two reasons: First, I always believed that kids (and learners in general) are empowered when they create things. Kids enjoyed posing for strangers, but they never touched a camera. Second, I personally didn’t like to be taking pictures of them as if I was a tourist.

In the first camp I met a mother preparing lunch for her children just outside their tent. I greeted her, and soon she was telling me her story while her six-year-old daughter was taking pictures around. The camp was built ten days before, and those people were coming from a region that was liberated by the Free Syrian Army, so their town became under the mercy of the Syrian regime’s rockets and military aircrafts. I spent about 30 minutes talking to the mother, and she mentioned that they were more comfortable back home and had more resources to live, but she could not bear spending more nights awake beside her kids waiting for the next rocket to hit.

Then, I headed back to where our car was parked to find many kids gathering. They asked me to take pictures of them. Instead, I offered them my camera to take the pictures themselves.

We started talking about different issues regarding the camp. One kid showed me his collection of ammunition cases of different sizes. The kids said that everyone had similar collections[5] and could name the different weapons that were used to fire that kind of ammunition.

While talking, older teenagers joined us (16-17 years old). Among other many things, I asked them why there were no volunteers from the refugees themselves helping with running the new camp[6] and meeting its needs. One of them answered that they volunteered in the beginning, but then an aid agency would come offering incentives for some refugees to do camp-related work. That discourages the people who were already volunteering. They’d say they wouldn’t volunteer while others are being paid to work[7].

The second camp I visited was Qah camp. Again, I went through the tents, met a 12-year-old boy with his sister who was always smiling, greeted them and asked for their names. I introduced myself as their dad approached. He immediately invited me into their tent. While the dad was preparing tea, I showed the kids how to take pictures, and they invited the rest of their siblings and cousins. Soon they were posing for each other and taking pictures around the place. While they were exploring, they started taking video. After some help, they decided to arrange themselves to sing some revolutionary songs (here is one, in Arabic of course).

After an hour of talking and drinking tea, it was time to leave back to Turkey because the border gate closed at 5 pm. I made up my mind that I’d come back to this camp, maybe because I had a longer, more intimate interaction with the kids there 🙂 I asked the father if he knew a way to spend a few days in the camp, so he introduced me to the person who was managing the finance of the camp. I introduced myself as an educator willing to work with the kids. Without any questions, he said I was welcome and that he’d manage some space for me when I come back (and some source of power to recharge my equipment[8]).

In both camps, there were teachers but there was two problems according to the parents: First, the teachers had no motivation to teach without being paid :-\ The dad I met in the second camp was a lawyer himself, and said he’d prefer doing something that would get him some money to meet his family’s needs. That was understood somehow, but except for occasional day labor (such as olive harvesting with local farmers) most of the people would just spend the day smoking and drinking tea. Second, there was no space to gather the kids. Each family lived in tent that was about 16m2, and had 5-6 kids on average. There was a larger tent dedicated as a mosque in the second camp which was also use as a school, but it could barely host 80 kids at a time in a community of more than 4000 people. The parents acknowledged, however, the need of their kids to be involved in some kind of activity.

Another thing I noticed was the lack of trust among people. Refugees would usually accuse the people managing the aid distribution of embezzlement — I mean all the people along the aid distribution chain. There was nothing documented (although I knew some of that was happening), but this was a general theme of many of the discussions I had in the camps.

To be continued…

Abdulrahman Y. Idlbi is a consultant and researcher focusing largely on creative learning activities and environments for youth, especially in the context of the Syrian revolution. He provides consultation on educational technology, the design of learning spaces, and education for refugee children.

Abdulrahman holds a master’s in Media Arts and Sciences from the MIT Media Lab where he worked with the Lifelong Kindergarten group and was a member of the team developing Scratch: a programming language, environment and community designed for children to express themselves creatively.

Before joining the Media Lab, Abdulrahman worked in Syria and Saudi Arabia in designing and implementing various programs for young people to learn and create in different contexts, including school, after-school and summer programs.


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy of GPI.


[1] UNHCR, Syria Regional Refugee Response

[2] More than one third of the Syrian population is under 15 (source).

[3] In various cases, school were turned into barracks or detention centers (source: The Syrian Network for Human Rights: A report on the destruction of schools and its consequences)


[4] Those were mostly people who had little but enough money to pay rental. Their life was still difficult. Many teachers walked long distances to the meetings because they couldn’t afford the transportation.

[5] In another camp, a five-year-old kid gild showed me a similar collection

[6] Tal-al-Karamah camp, established to host the people displaced after the beginning of Hama offensive. The camp was almost 10 days old and had about 1,000 refugees then.

[7] Another related issue was viewing the people in crisis as victims (versus survivors). I heard the same narrative from many people working with refugees/displaced people in different regions: the volunteers who came helping lacked the basics of dealing with such situations, and approached the situation as heros who were supposed to rescue the poor victims. Right from the beginning, the refugees were not encouraged to be proactive members in their communities, and the volunteers would offer willingly doing all what was needed, even the simplest tasks. Overtime, that evolved on the side of refugees into passiveness, less self-esteem, and as I believe, less trust and more nagging. The situation worsened as time passed with the refugees sitting idle, in addition to the dramatic increase in their numbers in the past few months. Should I also mention aid providers who ask the kids to pose with what they provided and how that’s affecting their dignity?

[8] Well, maybe I should have mentioned this little detail earlier, but there was no heating or electricity. The only source of electricity was a generator that was only turned on at night to power the lamps in the bathrooms and the storage tent.