Issue Briefs

On a Mission to Learn: My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp (Part 4)


Day 5 – Elections

Abdulrahman Y. Idlbi

We had many new experiences that day. It was snowing all night, and in the morning everything was in white. I was wandering around the camp and soon was engaged in a snow fight with the kids. I noticed some level of aggressiveness by a group of kids against others, including me) and they were telling the kids to go back to where they came from. That was harsh. Trying to talk to them, I found out they were from the village just next to the camp. Investigating more, I found out that the villagers, adults and kids, didn’t like the refugees and vice versa. The villagers complained that refugees were breaking branches of olive trees to set fire, and that their kids were learning bad words from refugee kids. The refugees on the other hand said that villagers were making use of their misery.[1] [2]

I was waiting for an authorization to access a refugee camp on the Turkish side, and had only a day or two left in Qah (that was what I thought at least). I decided to put more explicit effort on enhancing the learning community.

From the first day, I worked on establishing the mosque/school as a safe welcoming environment for all the kids. When I first arrived to the camp, kids were told by many adults to leave as soon as their religious schooling sessions were over. I set a rule with the adults and kids that no one can tell anyone to leave the place.[3] Soon, the kids were more comfortable in doing more activities in the place: at times you’d find the kids drawing, singing, running around the place and doing cartwheels. The kids even started inviting their friends who never came to the place before. That day, a kid named Rasmeh came to the mosque while we were drawing. He was older than the rest of the kids but he was deaf, which made him live in isolation from the rest of the community. When I noticed him outside he was always by himself. I had no idea how he knew about the place, but as soon as he appeared on the door on the tent, kids ran to me asking for pencil and papers for him to draw. I liked how they were celebrating him.

I mentioned earlier that the refugees in general had issues with trusting whomever was involved in running the camp, and kids were just inheriting the same attitude and language.[4] One reason for that, in my own analysis, is that refugees were not encouraged to participate in running the camp. Most of the work and administration were handled by people who were outsiders, with the refugees just passively observing and receiving. This state of idleness provided a rich environment for gossip and mistrust to spread.

To introduce a change, I decided to delegate more tasks to the kids. I told the boys when their session started that I had to leave for some business and wanted them to select someone to take care of the process of distributing the paper and pencils and running the session. All the kids were like “Me.. Me..” I said I wanted them to nominate someone but that was without avail. Everyone wanted to be in control. I tried explaining again then started an election process. Out of ten kids who were there, the winner got only 3 or 4 votes. I asked him to select an assistant, then explained the rules for the kids:

  • We’d deal with each other with respect. No physical or verbal violence was allowed.
  • Girls and younger boys had a higher priority in getting the materials.
  • If someone infringed on the girls or the boys in charge we’d defend them.

I told the new “admins” they had the freedom to choose the right way to run the process and they could ask me for help when needed. Soon, the kids started shouting at each other, and some came to me complaining. I told them to go back to the admins and ask them kindly for what they wanted. The admins themselves were abusing their power to shout at the kids and give them orders. I brought their attention to that. At one point, the boys were almost going to start a fight. I reminded them of the rules again and told them that if they couldn’t solve things for themselves the session would be over.[5] That worked. The boys received their tools and started drawing.

Day after day, the process was improving and the kids were dealing with each other with more respect. They created a sign-up sheet to keep track of the pencils. When new kids came to the place, they told them who was in charge and what the rules were. Everyday, the kids were asked whether they wanted to keep the current admins or elect new ones. The boys were happy with theirs. The girls were electing a new one everyday 🙂

Asmaa, a close little friend of mine, was a five-year-old girl who accompanied me most of the day. She was drawing a boy, a house and an obscure rectangle. When I asked her what that was, she talked about an arms depot, then mentioned adults and girls being killed and buried. I thought Asmaa was already comfortable talking to me with the camera running. I started filming, asked her to repeat what she had already said, then asked her for more details. She mentioned that her uncle was among them and he was killed by bombardment. I met Asmaa’s father later to ask him about her story. He couldn’t confirm that his daughter had watched any of that. He told me also that her uncle was injured, not killed. I don’t think Asmaa was lying or intentionally exaggerating, but that was her perception of the events going around her. I had similar incidents with others kid telling their stories.

I noticed a nine-year-old boy who was drawing many war aircrafts and a plenty of dead bodies. After he told what was going on I asked him whether it was ok to visit him and talk further about his story. He invited me to his tent where I met the rest of his family: his parents, twin brother, 7-year-old brother, and 14- and 16-year-old sisters. The father asked politely not to film any of his family members if it was to be shared publicly. He was a teacher, and he travelled monthly to receive his salary from the government. He was afraid that someone would report him to the authorities and his salary would be stopped. As I mentioned what his son was drawing he told me their story. Most of their house was destroyed by an aerial bomb. The mother and the boys were already inside, but they miraculously survived. He told me also other tragic stories from their town.

I was listening most of the time, encouraging him often to elaborate. His wife and daughters were still there listening. Suddenly, the wife started telling me how she survived the bombing. She said she felt choking frequently as she remembered what happened. When the bomb hit the house, only the youngest kid was near her, and she thought the twins were on the roof as usual watching the aircrafts. She grasped the hand of her boy and started running like crazy, and a scream by her son made her realize that they were running barefoot over the broken glass. When got outside, she found out that everyone was already there and no one was hurt. As she reached this part of the story she and her daughters, who were listening behind her, were already crying. While the mother was telling her story, her husband was consoling her, but in a way that implied his wish to stop this conversation. She ignored him anyway. The parents told me frequently that the kids needed someone they trust to listen to them,[6] and were glad that I was patient enough to do that. However, it looked like the adults themselves had many untold stories and wanted someone to listen.

Day 6 – Free Bird

Back to my rapper friend, Free Bird. When he first performed in front of me, I asked him to record some of that later in daylight. I had that chance after a few days. The only place that seemed to be suitable to record was the mosque/school. There were two challenges: first, I was pushing the limits by playing music in the mosque. That was easy to solve by recording in a time away from prayer times. The difficult challenge was that Free Bird didn’t want to record with the kids around. He rarely did any of that in front of anyone, and he wasn’t sure how the kids would respond to that.

When we entered the mosque there were only some boys, and he immediately started shouting at them asking them to leave the place. I kept silent. That was wrong. It was against the rules I established earlier, but wanted badly to see him performing. Some of the boys left the mosque and started making noise because they knew we’d be recording. Well, the good part was when one of the boys came to me saying, “Aren’t you the one who said no one can make us leave the place?” It was shocking somehow, but I was still glad that he confronted me with that. I gathered the boys and told them that Free Bird was timid to perform in front of others. After a short discussion, we agreed that the boys would stay inside at a distance from Free Bird and would observe silently.

Free Bird asked me to download a beat to play, then we started recording. With every shot we had, the kids came closer, until they became just next to me. They were amazed by his performance. They started asking him to teach or sing with them, and Free Bird got more comfortable with them. I thought rap could be a possible pathway towards learning literacy skills and a valuable form of self-expression, [7]so I encouraged Free Bird to take things further building on his positive interaction with the kids.

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] Many villagers were working with the camp to provide water and other needs, and the land itself was rented from a farmer in the same village.

[2] The camp’s power generator malfunctioned on several days. On one of them I asked the kids for an alternative to recharge my equipment. They suggested going to one of the houses in the village just across the road. I visited a house introducing myself as a teacher and asking for help. I was invited over lunch with my kids who refused to come inside. That’s how I got the villagers’ perspective.

[3] In Islamic convention, a mosque is called a house of Allah. I used that with other religious texts to justify what I was doing. Looking myself as a religious guy and showing knowledge in religious texts made people more comfortable in accepting (or allowing) the way I was doing things in the mosque, although most them were unconventional.

[4] Every few days, a big argument would erupt between the refugees and the camp managers (and guards), usually after distributing aid or having an accident (like a fire in a tent). Kids were aware of all of this. They even knew many of the details running the camp (e.g. how many water tanks the camp needed and how much they cost).

[5] Any suggestions for an alternative method?

[6] They didn’t provide that listening themselves.

[7] Following a suggestion from my colleague, Champika Fernando