Mondays are usually rough, because it involves 7 hours of non-stop teaching. But those hours go by quicker when the kids are interested, and today was one of these days.
Since last week, we welcomed a new teenage boy, from another city in Syria, Daraa. My knowledge of Syrian geography has greatly improved since I first started volunteering in August last year. I’m glad to see these new faces, because it means they made it safe. He also came in a dinghy, and he landed on Lesvos shores back in November. When we met last week, I was making the advanced class work on German prepositions (they would have been spared nothing by Europe), and noticed Anaas’ presence. My colleague had notified me, describing a very polite, clever and quiet teenager. You come to appreciate silence very much when most of your days are filled with babysitting fifteen teens babbling in seven different languages.
As the others work away on their prepositions, Anaas is full of questions. Do I know how long it will take him to learn German? Will he be able to attend English classes as well? He has an book in Arabic on German grammar, is that ok? Don’t know, yes probably, and of course. What is striking though is not the questioning. Anaas already talks German fluently enough. Five months here, and he taught himself in his room at the shelter for unaccompanied underage refugees he shares with a couple of other kids I have in the beginner’s class. And here he comes, first day at school, immediately in the advanced class. He even corrects my dative case at some point. I’ll have to get him into a normal class quite quickly if I don’t want him to replace me!
The other kids show a lot of respect for him, because of how knowledgeable he is. Amer, one of the Palestinians, asks me how it is possible that he learned so quickly. I nod at the poster he prepared two weeks ago on Leonardo Da Vinci. “Curiosity brings you wherever you want to go!” I tell him. He’s bewildered.
Today though, we notice that Anaas isn’t very self-confident: he attends his first music class. He panics at the sight of the music sheets we take and as we gather around the piano. “I can’t read music, I don’t know how to read that!” he says. “No worries, I started music when I was older than you and it was just the same. You’ll pick it up in no time, for now just follow the others, I’ll give you some paperwork later on. Right now it’s just about singing”, I tell him. I want them to have fun, I don’t want them to bore them to death with music, and render them allergic to classical music. Since September, I managed to juggle between Mozart and David Bowie, Beethoven and Queen, music theory and keyboard practice, and so far they adhered to everything. So today, after a half-hour on Pink Floyd and George Orwell (there is a connection, yes, and it never hurts to know about 1984), here we are, gathered around the piano, first doing our breathing and warm-up exercises.
Anaas can’t believe it: we look like a yoga class. Arms up, breathe in, and out. Stretch the legs, the arms, move the head, slowly, left, right, front. We end up singing scales, giggling from the ridicule of it (just picture yourself with a group of a dozen people singing weird syllables in rythm). Then we take that song in Hebraic we had begun to learn two months ago. The teenager’s face narrows even further: “Are we singing in Hebrew as well? I can’t read Hebrew!”. “Neither can I, don’t worry! And none of us can! We just sing in any language, really. All you need is to know the syllables!”. So here we are, all singing together in Hebrew about the snow, with the birds happily singing outside in the courtyard. Today, we go through all of our repertoire really well: I told the kids “listen to one another. It doesn’t matter whether your voice is good or not. Sing to one another, sing together”. And as I said it, I realize that I have been working with them for months without telling them to mind their neighbours, yet it’s the most important thing in any choir. And quite magically, no sooner said than done, we reached harmony. We went through songs in Hebrew, in Latin (upon their own request, weird kids), and medieval French, which they probably master better than the last French teenagers I taught to. We all burst into laugh when singing Hevenu Shalom Alechem, another piece in Hebrew, because it means “we came in peace”, and one of the kids from Gaza throws in “sure they did…and weapons as well!”. What can we do but laugh at it? 18th century French philosopher Beaumarchais once said, “I hasten to laugh at everything for fear of having to cry over it”. That sums up our spirit. So here we are, the Palestinian and Syrian kids who grew up in a state of war laughing out loud for having to sing in Hebrew “we brought peace”. It’s already time to wrap up, they’re supposed to have a 15 minutes break, but they want their favourite: The Beatles’ Yesterday. And they sing it together, as I play it on the piano.
After the break, I find them again for two hours of German. As I’m trying to re-establish law and order in that room full of noise and inattention, I jokingly ask if schools in Syria also look like Kindergartens. Anaas and Omar tell me that in Syria, the slightest noise can make you being beaten up by the teacher. Apparently it’s allowed. And if you’re caught with your phone, it’s forever confiscated. Now I understand the fear in their eyes when I walk around confiscating the phones for the length of the course. One of the Syrian girls even thinks I haven’t understood, so she gets up and takes a ruler to show me how they are beaten up with it. “Well that could explain some things down in Syria then!”, I tell her. And we laugh about the war, because what could we do else. Tonight as I write this a lot of friends gathered at the Brandenburger Tor, in protest against Aleppo’s bombings. But back in the haven of the classroom, what can we do but live? So we live, and laugh, even at the war, especially at the war and all its absurdities, because we are free from it and that’s the only way to survive its scars. Hopefully, those kids are the ones who will bring the peace, regardless of their nationality or religion.