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Violating Sanctions

An American Woman’s Listening Tour Through the Axis of Evil

Mind the Gap

The Author By Kelly Hayes-Raitt | July 22nd, 2008 | Comments 3 Comments »

There’s a poetic Spanish phrase that means “the space that is between” to describe those moments when one foot is uprooting from the past but the next foot is not quite planted in the future.


The space that is between.

And so it is with the children I interview at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s summer camp outside Damascus, Syria. Summer is a magical intersticio for most children, but these children have wider gaps to mind. They are 10- and 11-year-old Iraqi refugees whose predominant childhood memories are of preparing for war, of escaping war. Of war itself.
They tell their stories in monosyllables, in monotones, through expressionless faces neither reluctant nor regretful. They answer every question patiently, offering nothing more than what is asked, usually with an indifferent shrug of their shoulders.

Suheila, a 10-year-old beauty who steals glances at me at every opportunity, breaks into a wide smile when I catch her staring at me. She seems to like my attention.
Through an interpreter, she says she’d just be sitting home, reading children’s stories, if she were not here at camp. Her parents don’t allow her outside to play, a common theme I’ve heard from shell-shocked parents used to oversheltering their children in the war zones they haven’t really left.

Suheila likes the drawing class, sketching nature scenes with the colorful pencils provided. Her family left their home in Baghdad after it was burned and her father’s bakery was “stolen” from him by men with guns who told him he couldn’t work there anymore.

suheiladraws.jpgShe shows me her drawing of a big, baby blue house with a pig-tailed girl in a red flowered skirt standing outside in the sunshine.

The Summer Camp is one of several programs run by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to ease the financial and emotional strain on Iraqi families. Each summer, 300 refugee children in groups of 30 or 40 spend 4 days outdoors in the outskirts of Damascus at St. Paul’s Church, an idyllic oasis on the top of a hill. They are led through morning calisthenics, yoga and stretching by a charismatic teacher who bounces among the four co-ed lines of giggling children. On this particular Friday, the 11 girls and 17 boys are all Sunnis living in Jeramana, the rapidly growing, rapidly deteriorating section of Damascus where Sunni Iraqis congregate. They are dressed neatly in jeans and shirts or dresses and tights and hijabs, all wearing blue caps with a Nike “just do it” swoosh that they flourish on cue to an enthusiastic “hip hip hooray!”
The children receive lessons in drawing, handicrafts, sculpture and music, getting a chance to play and create. The Thursday to Sunday schedule dovetails with the Patriarchate’s summer school schedule, where these children receive extra tutoring in English, mathematics and Arabic.

Suheila’s teacher tells me she aces math. She laughs approvingly at the series of photos I’ve shot of her hunched over today’s drawing, and points out the resemblance of the red blobs on her paper to the distant hillocks. It’s hard to reconcile this graceful, relaxed girl so focused on drawing the peaceful fields surrounding her with the edgy, uncommunicative girl I just finished interviewing.

Intersticio. The space that is between.

Munir, a boisterous 10-year-old who gets suddenly mute during our interview, glances at his watch and says he’d be home sleeping this morning if he weren’t at the camp. He spends most days watching TV.
His brother died in the war, he volunteers suddenly, as if in explanation of his TV addiction. “There was damage in our home, and my father went to fix it,” the little boy says through an interpreter. “The Americans shot him.”

My interpreter omits the “American” reference, which I’ve heard from other children, until I ask if I heard correctly. “Yes,” the interpreter says, embarrassed. She tries to explain it away, but it’s what Munir has been told, and it’s what he believes.
The family’s home and car were burned – by whom, he does not know – and they left Iraq soon after with just the clothes he was wearing, Munir sweeps his hand over his clean, orange shirt and jeans.

He bounces up to show me the woven wall hanging he made yesterday. I ask if he’s going to give it as a gift, and he emphatically states it’s for his room. Munir’s eyes light up when asked if he’d like to do the summer camp again. “For longer than four days!”
His family receives food from the Patriarchate’s pantry, his mother attends the church’s health awareness class, and he attends summer school four days each week. His family has applied for resettlement, “we’ve asked many countries,” but they have no answer yet. Intersticio.

When I catch up with him in sculpting class, Munir proudly shows off an intricate “M” he’s molded in clay.

He tries to lift the flimsy clay from the worktable to the drying table, and is forced to reinforce its fragile joints. He painstakingly leans over his creation, smoothing the rough edges and fusing the fissures, fortifying his creation for the journey ahead.
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3 Responses to “Mind the Gap”

  1. John Reinke Says:

    This is a very touching story, Kelly. How can we help?

  2. Lily Says:

    amazing…you are doing an amazing thing

  3. Yael Masino Says:

    I want to make my site be as awesome as yours. Thanks.

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