Issue Briefs

On a Mission to Learn: My Trip to a Syrian IDP Camp (Part 5)

Part 5:

Day 7 – Adding Colors

Abdulrahman Y. Idlbi

Recently, Raghad joined us. She lost her leg in an airstrike, and never came to school before. That day her friends invited her and helped her to join us. She looked sad and rarely spoke, but she seemed to enjoy the activity because she kept coming on the next days.

I provided the kids with coloring pens for the first time. I gave them to the activity admins, and they had to figure out a way to manage the limited resources they had. After some discussions (and struggle with the kids) a system was established. We were losing small amounts of materials steadily, which caused frustration to the admins, especially the boys. I always told them that was fine as long as they were doing their best in managing what they had — and they were.

I had the coloring pens right from the beginning but wanted to see what the kids would do with pencils only, and soon I totally forgot about them. That day, one of girls, Rou’a, brought some crayons from her tent and provided them for the girls to use. I remembered that I had some boxes of coloring pens and brought them. Later that day, I gave one of these boxes to Rou’a. That was the only reward I gave to any of the kids, and I made it clear to the girls that she got that because she was so generous to share a precious resource she had, and that I was sure she’d do the same with the pens she got.

The kids were delighted to have the new tools. Some used them to support the old topics they were drawing, while other decided to explore more themes.

When I first came, my activities were running between 10 am – 2 pm. Soon, the kids were staying till sunset. In the late afternoon, they’d be crowded near the windows to make use of the little light coming in.

It was unusual to see any kid around the camp after sunset. It was totally dark and there was nothing for them to do anyway. I told some of them that if they came in the evening we could have a fun activity: light painting. When we met in the evening, it was mostly boys. We spent almost an hour doing that using cheap lighter flashlights which every kid had. Next day, we showed the rest of the kids what we did. More kids (including more girls) joined us in the evening, although it was terribly cold. I had to divide them into teams waiting in a line for their turn. With each shot, all the kids would run to me to see how it looked. I tried occasionally to point out specific techniques or ideas, but they didn’t listen. They were fascinated by what they were seeing, laughing at and admiring every picture. That was also fine.

With all the noise the kids were making, a few women came to us full of curiosity. After observing what we were doing, they asked me if they could try. I told them they could join the queue, and they did. They liked it! That made me think of activities that would be appealing to both kids and adults which they can do together.

I want to mention an incident which happened while we were light painting on the first night, just outside the mosque. One of the camp armed guards noticed me as he was going into the mosque. He approached me asking if it was ok enter the mosque with his weapon. I wasn’t expecting that of him, but with him asking I decided to play it as a gentleman and told him it was better not to. I thought he’d put his assault rifle back in his tent at the camp’s gate, just 30 meters away, and then come back to enter the mosque. Instead, he looked around at my kids, called the tallest one, and handled him his AK-47 😐 That was normal in that environment. Occasionally, one would hear shooting and bombing in the distance.

Day 8 – A New Mentor Introduced

I spent most of the evenings with the volunteering teachers, Waseem and Abu-Abdul discussing different matters related to the kids, the way we teach and the camp community in general. Sometimes, other people joined the discussion and one of them was Ghazi, a kind young man in his late twenties who was working as a tailor before leaving his town to the camp. He told me once that he knew a few songs which his little daughter liked and suggested that I teach them to the girls. I knew he cared about the kids, so I told him he could that. He was reluctant to accept, saying that he wasn’t a teacher and he had no prior experience. I encouraged him to give it a try, so he did.

He appeared in the afternoon during the drawing session, introduced himself, and told the girls he had a few songs they could sing together if any were interested. Soon, many girls were sitting around him learning the lyrics and practicing the new song. After some practicing he gave them a ten-minute break. All the girls left except for two sisters whom I didn’t remember seeing before. They stayed with Ghazi and talked to him. I came closer to listen to the conversation and noticed the girls were almost in tears telling him how they missed their village and their grandparents who were staying in a different camp. Ghazi was consoling them and reminding them that they had other family members and friends around them for support. The girls also started gathering, listening carefully, then one of them started also offering support. That was amazing. Those were people talking to each other for the first time, yet were able to show a high level of sympathy and support. This was unfamiliar in the camp. I was glad to see how the community settings in the mosque were inviting such positive interactions, even for newcomers.[1]

After the break, the girls gathered again to do more singing, offering this time to perform their own songs. I was filming that while the boys were watching jealously. They asked me to film them performing a song. I told them I would if they could organize themselves quickly because we had only very little time left before sunset. They called each other in a hurry, selected a leader and ran to me saying they were ready. They really were. Here’s their performance.

Day 9 – One Last Activity to Try

While I was having fun with the kids, my teammates in Boston were designing activities that could be held with the scarce resources I had. I received an activity the day before, and the theme was urban planning. The kids were supposed to design and create (in my case, draw) different buildings from the inside and outside over multiple stages, discuss the differences and how they can organize and connect them.

When the girls came in the morning I explained the new activity, divided the group into teams of 2, and distributed the materials. The girls were not so excited because they came with other plans in mind, but because the new activity included drawing it was ok. The major obstacle was something else. Till the day, all the activities were loose in structure: the kids would come in whenever they wanted, learn the general guidelines and goals of the activity, then approach them at their own pace. This kind of structure and activities tolerated having some kids doing totally different things (ranging from receiving formal instruction in the front of the mosque to running around and wrestling).

The new activity didn’t have that tolerance. It required a different structure that wasn’t in place yet. It was too noisy and distracting, the girls were of different ages and skills, and the number of participants was high. The girls started drawing following my requirements but didn’t take the activity to the next level. Adding more structure and organization wasn’t impossible, but it required more preparation and practice that didn’t fit in what was left of my time in the camp.

We had a prayer break at noon. When we met after that it was obvious that it wouldn’t be fruitful to continue the new workshop, so we just did what we used to do. During the break, some of the girls agreed on bringing their younger siblings to the mosque (babies actually). So, when we gathered again I had new students 🙂

The girls were asking about Ghazi because they wanted to perform songs with him again. Unfortunately, he was outside the camp on day labor. He came back in the evening, and we met as usual with the other teachers. Suddenly, we heard the girls outside the tent chanting “Ghazi.. Ghazi..” They knew we met, and came to us in a large group asking for more singing, although it was totally dark.

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] [Teachers: please don’t read this because you’d hate me] When schools are currently built for refugees, teachers are sought to lead the learning process. However, because I value the kind of interactions I describe through this report, I refrain usually from recruiting teachers for handling similar learning experiences. There are many good teachers of course, but none was trained to deal with the current situation. Additionally, teachers by training tend to give the curriculum and assessment a higher priority than anything else — even learning itself, and see themselves as the center of the learning/education universe 🙂 I prefer selecting people who care about what they do and about the kids, and it would be much easier and productive to help those people develop as better teachers/mentors.