Issue Briefs

On a Mission to Learn: My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp (Part 3)


Day 3 – Rolling! Action! Cut!

Abdulrahman Y. Idlbi

By the of the second day, I met more girls than I started with. I asked them to come early next morning to find some activity to do. When we met in the morning there were ten girls, all new! I asked them how they liked the screening yesterday, and if they wanted to do something similar. They were excited about the idea, but we needed a place to do it. One girl said it was ok to go to her tent. That was lots of girls in a tiny tent 🙂

My suggestion was to have a combination of singing and talking. I asked them to choose to talk about their experience back home before the revolution, during the revolution, their life in the camp, or their hopes for the future. Interestingly, most of them insisted on telling stories from the revolution: either how they had to leave their homes, or tales about the heros who lost their lives.

When it was time to be with the boys, I paid more attention to the description and stories told for the drawings. I took the detailed stories I heard to adults from the same town, and they verified that many were reflecting actual events and battles.|

That day, I also met Abu-Abdul, the other volunteering religious teacher working with kids. But unlike Waseem, he wasn’t a refugee himself. He came volunteering from another city to help refugees around this part of the border. He was tough, but the kids, especially the girls, liked him. He was devoting all his time to the kids, and whenever they needed him to recite, read or talk he’d be there for them. He was taking turns with Waseem teaching the kids, and coordinated together what they were teaching.

He was straightforward and strong about it when I introduced myself and why I was there. He said that if I really wanted to help the kids I had to stay with them, to be there with them, and that if I wanted to introduce change I had to be there to do it. I felt it was a bit aggressive in the beginning, but I highly respected that of him. Some parents expressed concerns about people like me coming and and leaving frequently, many dealing with the kids but without building deep connections.

I spent the evening with Waseem, Abu-ABdul and some of their friends. They were all in their early twenties. One asked me about the camera, so spent some time taking pictures with different settings. Then I thought of doing some light painting. It was their first time doing it, and they liked that!

We were talking about interests, and one of the guys, Free Bird, mentioned he was a hobbyist rapper who wrote his own lyrics. That was surprising. I never met one before in Syria because I had certain views of their community, and never expected to meet one in the camp. I asked him to start singing and I liked it. I asked him later to record some songs and he performed in front of some boys, which helped in establishing a positive interaction between them.

I spent that night with these guys. Welcome to a real tent. I didn’t have my sleeping bag, so I needed 5 blankets to stay warm (remember that each refugee received only three?) That was the only preferential treatment I got. Other than that, I shared their food, lived in the same tents, had to wear muddy clothes, and waited with them in bathroom lines 🙂 Sharing these experiences helped in establishing deeper relationships with the kids and parents. All that put me in a better position to gain their trust as one of them who really cared about them.

Day 4- Not only Tell Stories, But Also Write Them

Aside from writing their names and where they came from, the kids didn’t write anything. On that day, after showing me their drawings and telling me what was there, I told them to write down what they had just told me. They were reluctant first, but I told them just to write down directly on the drawing itself.

Some wrote only nouns (e.g. tree, house, fish), while others wrote simple sentences (e.g. This’s a tree, Here’s a child playing). They had spelling mistakes, but I didn’t correct them. When they came back to show what they did, I asked them to read what they wrote.

When I asked one girl to write, she told me she couldn’t. She was around 8. I asked her in which grade she was. She said she was supposed to be in the third grade.[1] I asked her if she could spell the word, write the letters separately, connect each two letters together, and then write the whole word.[2] She tried each of these separately for one word then another, then she delightfully said “I can write!” Again, there were some errors but I didn’t point them out.

After showing their first writings, I asked them to think of a sequence of events instead of a fixed frame in time. To help them, I suggested dividing the sheet into four quarters and thinking of each quarter as a frame in the sequence. It became easier for them to write expressive sentences that tell a story.

As I was having an increasing number of kids attending my sessions, I started delegating some tasks to the kids themselves. After explaining the next activity to a few kids, I sent all other kids to ones who had already started to investigate what they had to do. For example, I’d tell a kid who wrote on his drawing but didn’t create a sequence of events yet to look for a kid who had his sheet divided into four quarters, introduce himself, and ask him what to do next. Sometimes,  a kid who had already started a new task would come back to me saying he couldn’t explain it to another kid so we would go over the activity and discuss it again. That helped in fostering the relationships between the kids, and it helped them practice talking about their learning experiences not only with adults, but also with their peers.

I also found out that some kids became more interested in writing than drawing. They were writing about fairy tales or a series of events they went through. Another thing I started noticing was that kids were drawing less war scenes. Some still did, but I could see a wider variety of themes developing over time.

One of the volunteer teachers, Abu-Abdul, was developing a deeper interest in what I was doing. Everyday, he asked what activities I held and observations I had. That day, I had to leave the girls while they were drawing. When I came back I found him sitting with the girls having a similar interaction to the one I told him I was doing. He was asking them about their drawing and listening to their stories. After a while I found out that he was incorporating some of the strategies I was using in his own lessons (like delegating teaching tasks to his students).

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] I received this “supposed to be…” answer from many kids.

[2] Arabic is written in a cursive style.