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Unlikely pen pals

23 November 2016, Impact of Our Work

How do children in Beirut connect with children in Melbourne? Through good ‘old fashioned’ letters, of course!

Sarah Ireland, a Save the Children worker based in Lebanon, tells us about the special bond Syrian children have made with children in Melbourne – through pen pals.

When I arrived at the school, in the cold mountain air in northern Lebanon, the children were playing on a concreted playground out the front. But soon we were all in a classroom talking about where in the world Australia actually is, how long it takes to fly there and, of course, kangaroos.

It had taken about two hours to get from my home in Beirut to the school in the village of Douma. But we had made the trip to bring messages of hope from Australia.
 
Letters from children in Melbourne to Syrian children in Lebanon. Photos: Save the Children

The children at Douma are just some of the one million refugees who have fled to Lebanon from the violent conflict in Syria. Many narrowly escaped shooting, shelling and sniper fire, often leaving at the last minute with no possessions. Some saw their family members die and their homes and schools destroyed.

Back in Australia, Save the Children had been trying to raise awareness about the plight of Syrian refugees. To mark the fifth anniversary of the crisis in March we asked students aged 5 to 11 at the Reservoir East Primary School in Melbourne to write and draw messages to children who had been swept up in the Syrian conflict.

In their messages the Melbourne students had expressed their hopes and dreams, confiding to their peers across the world about their favourite hobbies, cartoons, food and weather.

And they wished the Syrian children a happy life.

‘Dear kids,’ started one of the messages. ‘The first friend you have will guide you and help you and always be on your side. And the first friend will be your best.’

Another letter read: ‘I hope you can stay safe and not get hurt. Make sure that you stay with family and friends. Be careful.’

When they first arrived in the Middle East, me and my colleagues from the education team at Save the Children’s Beirut office decided it was best to take these messages to the Douma school. There we are supporting children aged 3 to 14 in early childhood care and development, and non-formal education, so they can catch up on, in some cases, the years of schooling they have missed because of the conflict.

After one of the teachers translated the letters from the Australian students, the Syrian children started to write back their own, decorating them with drawings of princesses, hearts, balloons, and fields of green and brightly coloured flowers.

There was a buzz of chatter in the classroom as they swapped coloured pens and read out their messages:

‘Hello, I am Samar* from Syria. I wish you a happy life and success in school. I wish you a happy future. Thank you for your interest and this fabulous letter.’

‘Hello, I love you. My name is Sophia*, we like flowers and spring and I like to go hiking because mountains are beautiful landscape. I feel so happy when I go to the mountains. Thank you and I love you all.’

‘Hello, my name is Ahmed* from Syria. I wish you a happy life. I like playing football and I think you do too. Thank you for the letter.’
 
Syrian children write letters back to their pen pals in Melbourne. Photos: Save the Children

Remembering back to when I was at school in Queensland and the excitement of receiving a pen pal letter from someone my age in France, it was heart-warming to see the smiles on their faces as they read out their messages.

Moving from table to table, I thought of the life that these children had before the conflict. Most likely they had been in school as pre-conflict Syria’s enrolment rates were almost 100%. They would have lived a life not unlike many children in Australia.

However, since the crisis began in 2011, millions of Syrians have had their lives ripped apart by war and violence, and many younger children now remember Syria as being nothing but full of violence and sadness.

Every day I see Syrian families on the streets of Beirut begging for food, money or warm clothes. When you drive through the country it is easy to see the makeshift tents that have been erected to house Syrian families who have nowhere else to go.

Many of the Syrian children in Lebanon have missed years of schooling while their towns were being attacked, and then again while they were waiting to be admitted to school in Lebanon. Now in the sixth year of the conflict, it is essential that the international community works with the Lebanese government to ensure that every single Syrian child is able to access a safe and quality education so we don’t have a lost generation of children who have missed out on an entire childhood.

As we collected the letters from the children, promising to deliver them back to the students in Australia, one of the teachers said to me: ‘This has made children so happy today. It is so nice for them to see that children in Australia are thinking of them, so far away in Lebanon.’

Delivering these letters may seem like a small gesture. But I believe it gave these Syrian children, who have been through such loss and suffering, some joy in knowing that they were not forgotten, even on the other side of the world.

When we take these letters back to the Australian students, we also want to tell their parents about the experience.
 
Students in Melbourne listen to the story about how their letters got to the children in Lebanon. Photo: Save the Children

Together we hope these families will continue to raise awareness that the conflict in Syria isn’t just about politics, and cities won and lost in the fighting, but it is about children who have had their lives damaged by a fight that was never theirs.

*Names of Syrian children have been changed.

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