An ‘R-Rated’ classification in Canada categorises a movie as ‘Restricted’ where persons under 18 years of age “are not permitted to attend under any circumstances as the movies may contain brutality/graphic violence, frequent sexual activity, intense horror and/or other disturbing content”.
Yet what I was asked to present to pupils, in my opinion, was beyond R-Rated, for my presentation was about Syria, a place where children are slaughtered, left lying on sidewalks with bodies grotesquely disfigured by burns or bullet wounds.
If I were to classify such images, I would perhaps choose the letter ‘U’ for unimaginable, unfathomable, unbelievable, or ‘I’ for inhumane, and inconceivable, or ‘B’ for beyond human imagination, for what has been transmitted about Syria by camera lenses exposes the worst of human savagery and brutality, of cold-bloodedness and immorality.
Last month, I was asked by one of my children’s school teachers to speak to the pupils about Syria. My objective was to create awareness of the suffering in Syria, and furthermore, to team up with other humanitarian efforts and extend relief to Syrian families enduring the bitter cold in refugee camps, where it has been reported that the cold has become a cause of death for Syrian children.
Most challenging about my task was the age of my audience which ranged from kindergarten to grade 6. I was to create awareness amongst the pupils, but at the same time, I had to walk the fine line of not exposing them to images that would likely turn into nightmares later that night. I was certain that any parent in the school would deem the images of the Syrian daily reality as too much to fathom for their school-age children living within the borders of an idealistic, war-free Canada.
And so I titled my talk ‘Think of Others’ as per the poem of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and began my research for something appropriate through the endless snapshots of charred bodies and disfigured corpses of Syrians, old and young.
One of the photos I came across was of a number of children lying in hospital beds with amputated hands or legs. There were no traces of blood, only white gauze. However, after discussing the photo with the teacher, we decided that it might be too disturbing for the children, and so I excluded yet another slide from my presentation.
I chose images I thought would be tolerable for this age group — of children standing in the ruins of their destroyed homes, of two boys wrapped in one blanket to protect their feeble bodies from the biting cold, or of a young girl holding an infant on her arm while her other siblings clung onto her crying with eyes that reflected the horror they had witnessed.
As I spoke of the Syrian reality, I saw that the children were very attentive — their awareness was coming into being; they were beginning to think, to visualise, and more importantly, to feel. It was as if they could feel the cold and hear the weeping of the Syrian children — they were thinking of others.
Most of the children in my audience were Canadian, but despite the fact, I assured them that they would be able to sing along to an Arabic song sung by Arab children. And indeed, as the song Biktub ismik ya blaadi’al shams il ma bitgheeb (I will write the name of my homeland on a sun that will never set) resounded in the auditorium, the children echoed along to a chorus of ‘la la la la la la la ...’ — a unison of voices that brought about a poignantly magical harmony.
After the presentation, Lauren, a first grade student, put her tiny hand in mine, and asked, “Next time you visit Syria, can you take me with you?”
Justin, a 5th grade student, chased me down the playground and said, “I have $23; it’s all I have, and I want to give all my money to help the Syrian children.” A few weeks later, his grandmother knocked on my door and handed me another $ 40 Canadian that Justin had collected by shovelling snow off the neighbours’ driveways.
And Marcel, another first grade student, emptied his billfold into an envelope and handed it to me with his little hands — the envelope clinked and jingled as the metal coins slid from one side to another.
Today, after only one month of collective work, the students of small St Mary’s Catholic School (BC, Canada) have raised $3,300 with which they plan to buy eleven winter baskets to send to their fellow Syrian brothers and sisters.
What a beautiful world it would be if our political leaders had the hearts and minds of Lauren, Justin, and Marcel in a despairing, pained world.
Ghada Alatrash, writer and translator, holds a Master’s degree in English. Her first work of translation So That the Poem Remains was released in October 2012.