An Unstoppable Teenage Life Force: Face to Face with a Class of Syrian 7th Graders


Several years ago, while I was working on a project in Lebanon, I came face to face with a class of Syrian 7th graders. The 7th graders had been displaced to Lebanon by the war taking place across the border. I had been brought to the school, and the nearby refugee camp where the Syrian children lived with their families, as a consultant family therapy “SME” – a “subject matter expert.” My terms of reference as the SME for the project included developing and delivering a family systems training package, with supervision support, to mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) workers engaged in the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis in the region. In projects like this one, I often find myself in unexpected places—in this case, a place with Syrian 7th graders, and, afterward, with their parents and family members in a nearby refugee camp. While the location I was in was new, the task I was doing was not. And when I met the 7th graders, I had been working in the Syrian humanitarian response, with a group of colleagues in the country, for several years.

Over 13 million Syrians have been displaced, inside and outside of Syria’s borders, since the start of the crisis in 2011. Countries neighboring Syria, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, have become home to over 5 million Syrian refugees. The effect of such a dramatic shift in the movement of families at once, in such intense and painful circumstances, has tremendous repercussions across every sector of a community and state response. Yet, understanding the intensity and circumstances from the ground, indeed, from the voices of families who are living through forced displacement, can be the most critical way to inform and shape that response. So, when the NGO I was working with asked me if I would like to visit a school that had created a learning environment for displaced Syrian children, of course, I said yes. The visit was arranged within 48 hours, and after a long drive, I found myself face to face with a bunch of 7th graders.

We entered the classroom after spending an hour with the administrators. Over rich coffee and a tray of sweets, we took turns describing the work we were all doing. The NGO, well-known in the community and the country, was welcome in the school, but it was the first time for them to meet the school administrators, including the school’s social worker, to learn what they had been doing as part of their response to the influx of Syrian children. As Charity Somo reports in the accompanying piece in this issue of FTM, the presenting needs of children forcibly displaced by war are complex. The social worker was a team of one; the needs of the children were within her scope of practice, but the number and complexity was sometimes overwhelming. After we left her small office, she walked with us outside, continuing to tell us about the adjustment the children were making as we watched them play games in the courtyard. After these important introductions and the idea exchange, we came face to face with about 40 Syrian adolescents in a classroom, during their English lesson. Although children of all ages were in the school, it was decided by the administrators that this class was the most appropriate group for us to meet.

Taking an ethnographic sensibility to our understanding of what these young people had to say, we were hoping to learn about what the students identified as important for their families’ health, well-being, and future. But we had to turn that grand tour question into a simpler one that was sensitive to the cultural and country context. We explained we were there as part of the local NGO project to support the well-being of Syrian families displaced to Lebanon by the crisis, who the project funders were, why the project was funded, and what its goals were. The NGO contact also introduced me and explained what my role was as the family therapy “expert” in the project. We were here to learn about families, specifically Syrian families displaced to Lebanon, and could they help us? Three of us adults were standing in the front of the classroom: me, the English teacher, and my NGO contact, who was also acting as interpreter. In that classroom with my hosts, we huddled together to brainstorm. Given the numerous ways loss of loved ones had happened in a Syrian family during the crisis, we needed a question that was clear, safe to ask, and yet also broad and open-ended enough to cover many possibilities. After our huddle, we agreed on the following, which my NGO contact/interpreter then asked the students: Which of you has had members who have “left the family?”

All of the 7th graders raised their hands. Nearly every single one of them held up five or six fingers. These hands being held high with counting figures clearly displayed a question we hadn’t asked.

The children told us how many family members they had lost.

I had not expected this. Nor had I yet formed the question they answered in my mind. The students continued to hold their hands up, and looked at us with direct, expressive faces. Unprompted, a few then told us how they had lost a family member—many of them speaking excellent English—and the ways the losses had occurred: Drowning in the Mediterranean; disappearance in the country; death from a barrel bomb; relocation to Europe. I remember listening to this and watching the faces as some recounted their losses in front of the others.

Even as they listened to us and to each other, the children were loud, boisterous, and full of energy that electrified the room. Their smiles were big; their eyes curious and direct, looking right at us with a kind of fearlessness I had seen before. By the end of the visit, I had noticed the few that talked less and were quieter, or perhaps those whose Arabic was still preferable to their newly acquired English, which many of them wanted to practice with us openly and with confident playfulness. What I remember about that day is how the 7th graders were stunning in their energy and in their irrepressible, spirited banter with us.

When we felt we had heard what we needed to hear, being conscious of the time, we asked our last question. We asked the group, one by one, to tell us what they wanted for their future. We went around the room this time, to give everyone—even the less boisterous ones—a chance to speak. Again, our question was intended to be “grand tour” enough that we could also open the chance to hear specific information, too. And, we did. What did the Syrian 7th graders want for their future?

A red Ferrari!” one boy yelled out.

To be back in Syria, where I had perfect grades!” from a 7th grade girl, who went on to tell us that in Syria, before the war, she did very well in school. Here, in the camp, there was not enough time for study. There was so much else to do.

More time to do Facebook!” said another boy, making everyone laugh.

To be back in Syria, where my parents didn’t worry about me being outside like they do here in Lebanon!” This comment reflected the security issues we had heard about in the camp, and the risks to adolescents and other vulnerable groups.

And finally, as if their fingers had brought missing family members into the classroom, we heard the following wish for the future, over and over again:

To see my brother again.”

“To see my mother again.”

“To see my father again.”

“To see my uncle again.”

“To see my sister again.”

“To see my aunt again.”

“To see my grandmother again.”

“To see my grandfather again.”

The voices of these 7th graders remain vivid in my memory. Today I think of them as a powerful group of diplomatic envoys, on a mission to promote understanding of the Syrian 7th grader hopes and dreams during and in spite of war. They were a forcibly displaced group of Syrian 7th graders, yes. But that is not all they were. They were also an unstoppable teenage life force, fierce in their will to put a voice to their experiences, their losses, and their hopes for the future.

Author Notes:

Photos by Laurie L. Charlés. A briefer version of the experience described here appears in a chapter in Charlés & Nelson (May 2019). Family Therapy Supervision in Extraordinary Settings: Illustrations of Systemic Approaches in Everyday Clinical Work. London: Routledge.

Thanks to Maha Al Ahmad for assistance with the Arabic translation.

Laurie L. Charlés, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and an AAMFT Professional Member holding the Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor designations. Over the past dozen years, she has delivered family systems training and supervision support in humanitarian contexts in multiple countries, including in Syria, Libya, and Lebanon; in the Central African Republic, DRC, Burundi and Cameroun, and in Guinea, West Africa during the EVD2014 outbreak response. Her most recent consultations have been as an international trainer for the United Nations Office in Vienna, working to deliver the UNODC Treatnet Family package to practitioners in Central, South, and Southeast Asia, and as a consultant to create a grassroots toolkit for practitioners engaged in Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Initiatives in Sri Lanka. She has twice been a Fulbright scholar: in 2017-2018 as a Fulbright Global Scholar Program Fellow in Kosovo and Sri Lanka, and in 2010 as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Sri Lanka. She holds a PhD in Family Therapy from Nova Southeastern University and an MA in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She is author/editor of seven books, most recently International Family Therapy: A Guide for Multilateral Systemic Practice in Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (2021, Routledge).

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