It has been a while I’ve been wondering what more I could bring to the kids in the welcome classes. Teaching them is the roughest, most down-to-earth, thing I’ve ever had to do in a classroom. Given the recent events in Syria, a couple of kids in my class wanted to talk about it, about Aleppo. I asked them what they want to talk about, and a kid from Damascus adds: “What is there to say, everyone is either dead or starving”. I wish we could talk about it, but I don’t have words, I don’t see what rational explanation or message of hope I still have in me to give away to them. So I would rather not talk about it, them being from there and me being from a place which allows those exactions to happen, unpunished. Anyway, this morning, as we had planned to watch a movie, the kids ask whether instead we could watch some news about Aleppo. I refuse. I don’t want to see any more horrors, anymore blood and anymore dust from Syria, and I don’t want them to see that again after having fled it.
But one of the newest Syrian in the class gets up and comes forward. A 17 years-old from Homs, holds his phone in his hands, laughing, and puts the screen in front of me on my desk. The picture shows a man in Aleppo’s streets, holding bloody, ragged human limbs in each hand.
That feeling when you’re caught unaware and aren’t ready to witness sheer horror, that sheer disgust coming from deep inside. I want to vomit, to shout, to slap him for laughing. I don’t vomit, I don’t slap, of course not. But I do shout “What the hell is wrong with you to laugh. Haven’t you seen enough of that back there?” The kids laughs even more because he doesn’t understand why I’m beyond myself and apparently that’s funny. He looks like the adult and I the child. I try to think of more coherent words to utter in German to make my point but I just realize my thoughts come all too quickly and my eyes are already filled with tears. Great, I’m crying in front of the kids now, me who haven’t witnessed the war they come from. Talk about irony. But now he’s not laughing anymore. No one is. The Syrians all come around the desk and say sorry. My outburst has stopped as quickly as it has begun, it’s stupid to get overwhelmed if they of all people don’t. “Sorry miss, don’t take it personally, we didn’t want to hurt you, but for us that’s normal!”, says one of them. It is not normal, I say. It should not be normal, I add. “But miss, for us it wasn’t either before the war, six years ago. But now it is normal, we have seen so much of that already, that’s how things are”. I’m in strong denial: “This is not. should not. ever. ever. be normal. feel normal to you. You can’t ever find that normal. It’s inhumane, barbaric, abject and not, not, not normal!”. I feel utterly pathetic for giving out to Syrian kids because they find war scenes completely random. Because of an image on a screen. Only it’s not just a screen, it’s happening, right now, today, right this moment, in that hell on Earth. My biggest worry is that these kids are are left scarred, forever, by what they witnessed, by what they know happens. Obviously I know they all are traumatised, but most of the time I like to think I’m doing an OK job showing them what is positive in that world which falls apart. I’m not oblivious to the horror but I want to shelter them from it. It doesn’t work if what makes them laugh is bloody human limbs. I just hate every second of that moment. They aren’t random silly teenagers. It’s not provocation, they do find that normal, what is happening makes them think it’s f***ing normal to see corpses everywhere. What world are we leaving to our kids? Of course past the moment, I’m much calmer and completely ashamed for having shown them how much it has hurt me. I make them sit back and explain again that nowhere else in the world is it perceived as normal to see sufferings and misery. They seem to understand. Then I tell them we won’t be watching a movie after all. “Is that a punishment?”, one of the girl sheepishly asks. “Of course not, no one deserves a punishment, except myself maybe because I lost my temper. We won’t talk about the war anymore. But I want you to think. About freedom. Think that one thing through, what does it mean to you”. I have no idea what they will make of it.
Neither do they. One of the Afghan kids raises his hand: “Excuse me miss, but I never thought about it, it’s not something we do in my country, so what should I say?”
“That’s my point, I want that you do just that, think about the meaning of it. Think about words that you can link to it. Think about what it means in your own life”.
I say that to a kid who lives in a camp and who comes from a country deemed safe enough for him to be sent back there anytime. I’m aware of the utterly vicious circle we’re in and feel I’m either opening up their minds to something they will only ever be able to look from afar or being the worst cynical teacher they’ll ever meet. But he nods: “Ah, it’s funny to take time to think about it”. One of the Syrian kids also has a question: “Miss, when we’ll be done with our texts, can we read them loud in front of the class?”. Wow, dedication? Of course. They’re all scribbling away. I take the opportunity to go back to the kid who showed me the picture. We look at each other. His eyes worried, mine smiling at him, so he smiles and says: “Again, I’m sorry for the picture”. Of course, I feel awful: “It’s me who is sorry, I shouldn’t have shouted. I was shocked, this was a mistake”. He seems relieved that I don’t hold a grudge. I’m relieved he doesn’t!