By Shehnab Sahin
Relief International Jordan team
It was Al-Kehdawy Al Nablisi’s first lesson as an activities guide for Relief International at Za’atari camp. His spirits soared as he stood before the children, feeling productive for the first time in many months. But then he asked them to draw a picture. They handed him crayon images of guns, tanks, fighter planes and bombs.
“I was heartbroken,” says the 60-year-old Syrian refugee and RI volunteer who arrived at the camp in 2012. “Guns are the most terrible objects. They are what allows sons of the same soil to destroy each other.”
He knew that something, no matter how small, must be done. At Jordan’s Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps, more than 60,000 children have participated in Relief International’s remedial education program since it began in 2012. At the program, which is funded by UNICEF, children also learn life-skills and receive mental health counseling. Mr. Al Nablisi thought about how he might use his position as a recreational activities guide with the program to “turn pain to power.” He hoped to show the children that they could use their creativity to imagine a better future.
That evening, in the quiet of his caravan, Mr. Al Nablisi made a gun too. He fashioned the weapon from bits of scrap metal, wood and trash that he had collected from the lanes of the camp. It looked like a gun. But when he pulled the trigger, out came….candy. On its side, he painted the words, “Let us make guns that shoot candy”.
Mr. Al Nablisi’s ‘new guns’ were an instant hit with the children. Some cradled them for a while, happy to have a toy and worried about breaking it. But they could not contain their excitement, says one RI volunteer teacher, and they chased each other wildly, shooting candies as they ran.
“The children’s thrill and excitement was infectious,” says the teacher, who asked that her name be withheld for privacy reasons.
Mr. Al Nablisi has a long history of using cast-off items – and lost situations – for positive change. Born to a prominent family in Da’ara, Syria and trained as a mechanical engineer at the University of Aleppo, Mr. Al Nablisi often made tools for the farmers in his village. He crafted incubators for poultry and milk separators that the farmers could use for free. He hosted salons on Syrian art and culture that attracted people of all religions and cultures, he says, and he became a venerated leader in his own village and many villages beyond. But the conflict changed everything.
His village crumbled under bombs. His neighbors were extorted. Even his farm animals were killed, including his beloved horse, which was shot by combatants.
At Za’atari, Mr. Al Nablisi continues the work he once did for his neighbors. He makes dining tables, cooking utensils and children’s toys from the scrap metal and other debris in the camp, giving the items to fellow refugees who need them. He has built bookshelves for Relief International’s classrooms and made paintings, posters and Syrian handicrafts for the hallways. And the students who once drew guns and tanks? Many of them have turned their crayons to rainbows, Sponge Bob and the national flags of Germany, Canada and the United States.
“I look forward to my son attending sessions by Al-Kehdawy,” says one Za’atari parent. “My caravan gets filled with beautiful art work. And he brings a smile to my son’s face.”
Mr. Al Nablisi brings hope to children forced from school by bombs and conflict. Join him and volunteers like him by giving today.