Sunday, April 23, Children’s Day in Turkey. “Marking the foundation of Parliament on April 23, 1920, during the Turkish War of Independence, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, named this day as Children’s Day to emphasize that children are the future of a nation.”
I’ve lived in Turkey for five years, and although I’m still perplexed at how many national holidays are celebrated, Children’s Day has become my favorite! When I worked as an educator, we would spend the entire week preparing plays and organizing events to celebrate. If April 23 falls on a week day, the typical school program is canceled and a Children’s Day Party ensues.
This Children’s Day, more than just Turkish children will be celebrating. Turkey is the largest host country of Syrian refugees in the world. 3.2 million registered refugees are living in the country, almost half of which are children. In light of Children’s Day and Yusra’s first anniversary, I wanted to share a few stories that highlight and celebrate these courageous little ones.
The first day I spent Yusra Community Center, my friend and founder, Shahla, was teaching a Turkish lesson. ‘D’ was written on the whiteboard and the children were writing the letter in their notebooks. I had been briefed that many of the children hadn’t even held a pencil prior to attending the center, but I saw something odd. One boy was using his left pointer finger, guiding the pencil in his right hand as he wrote the letter ‘D’. I found out Omar is 90% blind. For months during the intense bombings in Aleppo, four year old Omar and his family stayed inside without seeing the light of day. There was nothing to see, and even if Omar wanted to see something, it would’ve been dust, death and destruction. He began to lose his eyesight. The conditions of war in Syria and the journey to Istanbul made it impossible to see a doctor. By the time Omar saw an optometrist in Istanbul, the now eight year old retains only 10% of his vision.
At Yusra, some of the children have gone through such intense trauma that they need specialized learning or one on one attention from volunteers. Shahla thought Omar would be in this group, but he refused. He wanted to study in the lesson and participate in crafts and activities with the other children. So, the determined boy was taught to write by memorizing the pencil’s movement and using his left pointer finger as a guide. Shahla would take Omar’s little hands in her own and slowly show him the shape of the letter. He would give an understanding nod and then eagerly fill up his paper with the letter. After finishing an entire row of letters in his notebook, Omar would look to the teacher with his unfocused eyes and a proud smile on his face; he would let out a joyous sigh before writing another row of letters.
Just this week as I was volunteering at Yusra, one five year old girl kept excusing herself to the restroom during craft time. She would take her small, puppy dog backpack with her and return to her seat a few minutes later. I noticed she was taking a tissue in and out of her backpack to wipe her eyes quickly before anyone would see. She said ‘ami’, which is mom in Arabic, so I pulled her into my lap and assured her that her mother would be coming to pick her up soon. Exhausted from crying, she fell asleep in my arms. As I held her for the last hour of the community center’s program, I knew this cry was unlike any western child’s cry for their mother. This cry was one that had at times, really never knew if her mother would come back. This cry came from a girl that had experienced bombs shaking her home and the loud engines of fighter jets. This cry was one that ran for her life, all the way to a foreign country, where all of life was strange. This cry was strong.
One boy at Yusra is under so much post traumatic stress that he is losing his hair. Children have lost their fathers in the war and have seen family members die in front of them. Their childhoods have been utterly disturbed and their suffering is unthinkable. For them to give up hope would be natural, or to become bitter would be validated; but they aren’t. Each day the children come in eager to learn, play and just simply be kids. Our compassion for them is most definitely good, but I think they also deserve our respect. So let’s cheer them on, be on their team, celebrate them!
Happy Children’s Day, sweet ones! You are resilient.
I made the video below to honor Yusra’s opening one year ago, April 23. Happy first anniversary, Yusra Community Center!
All photographs and video owned by caitlinalaina, contact for licensed use.
*music in video: “Find a Way” by Nico & Vnz (feat. Emmanuel Jal)