Sitting around low tables in a building with no windows we were all focused on the brand-new markers, pencils and, not to mention, the pencil sharpeners. I gave each child a piece of paper and asked them to draw their homes before they fled from their villages, their country, and life as they knew it back then. “I want you to help me illustrate what it is like to be a refugee,” I explained.
The feeling in the room was good. Happy, I thought. We colored, erased, chit-chatted, some were even singing. The white sheets of paper were soon filled with colors and shapes.
When we were all done, it was time to share. “This is my home and my flag. I miss my country.” “Here is my family with our suitcases. We all look sad because we have to leave our homes.” “These are dead people and blood on the ground. The soldiers attacked us and killed the people in my village. I saw this. This is why I am here now.”
One by one the kids, refugees from Syria and Iraq, took turns telling me what they had drawn. The atmosphere grew more and more somber as they bravely told their friends about their past.
One boy who was eight spoke in a whisper. “This is my flag, and my home,” he said. Then he said nothing more. I thought he was done. Or that he was shy. “Urge him to continue his story,” encouraged my translator. “Tell me more,” I said. “How long have you been here?” The boy looked pained. “I have been here for a month. My daddy died. My mommy is not well in her head. I miss my home.” With that he drew his breath as a way to stop what he knew was coming. Sobs. But he couldn’t stop them. He fought against the tears for some seconds, he tried to stop the sobs that desperately wanted out. Then he gave in. He put his head on the table, on the picture of his home and his flag. And the little body shook. I walked up to him. Put my head on his back and held him while I listened to the tiny body trying to stop the painful feelings from taking over. I whispered softly. I patted his shoulders and his back. He became mine. Soon my tears were coming too. I sat there for what seemed like long. Then I looked up. And around me were the brave kids, who just minutes ago had been singing. They were all crying. Every person in the room had his or her own story of loss and pain. Suddenly the stories were there. Suddenly the pain surfaced again. They had tried so hard to keep it tucked away. It was the only way to survive. But as soon as there was a little trigger, it all came back.
We looked at each other, cried some more, and then laughed too. Because none of us knew what to do about the tears, the pain, the memories, the losses. All I wanted to do what to hold them all tight, and possibly take them home with me. I knew that was not going to work.
“It is my birthday today!” shouted my translator. I knew her birthday was days away. “Let’s sing the birthday song!” Suddenly the tears stopped. There were smiles again. We sang Happy Birthday, and then went back to adding finishing touches to the pictures.
“These kids have experienced so much pain, we cannot let them start crying like this now,” my translator explained. “It is a tough world and they have to survive. In order for that to happen, they cannot let themselves focus on the past and on their pain. They can only look forward and forget about their past. That is why I got them to sing. We could not let them cry any longer. I know you think this is harsh, but it is reality.”
I didn’t know what to say. My heart was so incredibly heavy. I knew my translator was right. But it felt so wrong. It was wrong. There was something incredibly wrong with this world. I had to fix it.