Saturday, November 01, 2014

Changing a World

For the past three years I've been doing a lot of soul searching and trying to come to terms with the tragedy that is unfolding in front of the world. I don't pretend to have all the answers, and the truth be told I'm more frustrated at my own impotence than with the world's inaction. When I was younger I always thought I could change the world and that nothing was impossible if I put my mind to it. I know now that this is not really the way life works. First you need to have the right background, socially and financially. Then you need to have the right connections. Finally, and most importantly, you need to have the right passport. You learn quickly that life is about learning where the walls are, and where you stand in relation to everybody else. You might be walking down the same street as another, possibly go to the same class in school, but you could be living in totally different worlds.

We had that in Syria. We lived in different worlds and we were strangers to each other. The school I went to had a lot of rich children and as I grew up I realised that not everybody had problems paying the fees as we did, or have to buy their groceries on tab and be gently reminded whenever it got too big. One time I accidentally broke the glass to our classroom door and the school wanted me to pay the 800 Syrian pounds to have it replaced. The whole class was told that the window won't be replaced until I paid for it, and so I faced the daily terror of coming to school each morning and being asked by friends why my family wouldn't pay that money. And when they did and the glass was finally replaced I happened to be shutting the door when it cracked a second time. I don't remember if I had to pay again, because the glass obviously wasn't installed properly, but at the time it felt to me that if lightning were to strike anybody twice then it would be me.

Then there was that fateful day when I was told by my parents that we won't be going to the school because there was a "mix-up". The days turned into weeks, months, and then years, and I stopped answering the phone when friends called. I secretly opened a letter from the school my parents had hid and found out it was because we hadn't paid the fees. But I kept on pretending to believe them for a long time. I'd meet some friends occasionally, but generally I'd had enough. I couldn't pretend to be in the same circles and hang out carefree in the pizza parlours and spend my allowance like my friends because I didn't have an allowance and because even taking a taxi to get to where they were meeting was something I had to think long and hard about. And then there were the 'other' problems at home that made me feel even more isolated from my friends, because they all seemed so well adjusted when I'd visit their homes, problems that I couldn't even start talking to anybody about at the time. So I chose to be alone, and I sat and watched the world go by each day from our balcony, and imagined a life where I can get away from it all, where all our problems would be solved and I would be able to afford a PC and loads of music CD's and be able to go to school and study something wonderful and creative and meet new friends and have a life and get a great job and - dare I even think it - meet a nice girl and get married one day. I day-dreamed a lot because there was nothing left to do, and when I left Syria for the first time in 1998 I was still a dreamer, with no idea of how I was going to do anything and no idea what I really wanted. I did get to study, I did get many jobs, and I'm typing this post on a shiny new iMac that the younger me would only have dreamed about. These are quiet, small victories for me that I secretly savour, though something I suspect many of my old school friends would still find hard understanding.

When I went to Reyhanli to volunteer at the Salaam school last December and then again in June I was struck by the fact that I was going back to a proper school for the first time since I was fifteen and I was meeting students who are the same age I was then, though I don't remember looking anywhere near as young. It was an intense rush for me because I'd spent over two decades trying hard to forget these things. Those weeks were all about the children, but I got so much more in return. It felt like a waterfall of emotion, and I was coming to terms with memories such as the broken window and the grocery tab that kept growing and growing and the long months and years outside school, things I hadn't even thought about till then. I was standing in a room full of children who had exactly the same worries and insecurities, and who were going through the exact same thing I was. And they were all looking at me expecting I-don't-know-what, and some of them would cry saying they felt they had no future and that the world had abandoned them and they were missing out on a real life. Maybe it was fate, but I did something then I had never done before, I told the class that I had to leave school just like them. A girl raised her hand and asked me why, and I could feel them all look at me intently. I paused for a split-second and told her it was because my daddy didn't have the money to pay the school fees. The class was silent, I suppose it must have sounded odd to them that this guy coming from abroad should have had the same problems as they did. I told them everything, and in doing that I remembered, and I came to terms with these things myself, a process that is still going on now.

I told the children that I used to be afraid about the future as well, and about having my life slip away while the world moved on. I told them how I used to feel embarrassed to see friends in the street because I didn't want to tell them that I wasn't going to school anymore, and then I told them that it took me a long time to go back to university and to study but I did it in the end; that it wasn't going to be easy, but that whenever I thought the doors of the world were closed on me a small portal would open for me somewhere, call it karma or the universe or kismet. And I told them that each one of them had a portal just for them, a chance, however small, and that they could take it if they kept their eyes open. I told them that they'd each have their time, and that one day they will look back on these days and think about what they went through and that they'd even feel a bit nostalgic. Their eyes were a little bit wider as I told them all this. And I knew then why I was really volunteering there, and why sitting with these children and spending time with them was so important.

When the week was over and we all said goodbye I couldn't help but feel that maybe there was a reason I had to go through all those difficulties myself, I mean, none of these children were even born when I left school and left Syria. Somehow we shared a common experience, and I was able to reach out to them from across all those years to tell each and every one of them that it will be alright, and mean it, because I knew that the universe provides for us all in its own strange way. I know now that we can't change everything or erase what's already happened, but if we pay attention to life closely enough, and if we want to, we can try to change somebody's world for the better.

No comments: