“Mother, this area has a nice echo…” said 10 year-old Ansam when she reached a destroyed town in rural Damascus that serves as the shocking backdrop of our music video marking six years of a horrifying conflict in Syria.
I first met Ansam when she walked onto the stage of the Damascus Opera house last December, with so much confidence and poise, wearing a beautiful powder dress and her long black hair down. That day, together with 100 other children from shelters across Syria, she performed songs of hope, resilience and a desire to return to a peaceful Syria, marking UNICEF’s 70th anniversary.
Today, in that same beautiful dress and her usual smile, Ansam came together with 40 children from a shelter for uprooted families in rural Damascus to send another message of hope to the world through their song.
Born blind, Ansam could only feel the rubble under her white shoes. She could only hear the echo of her voice singing back “we might be young children but our scream is from the heart, we want to erase all fear and be the change.”
I thought to myself: what stronger message of hope and courage is there than a little girl, forced to leave her home under shelling, managing to find a “nice echo” for her voice amidst the rubble? To me, she captured the essence of our work for children across the country with her innocent, causal comment.
In their colorful clothes, with roses and buckets of paint in hand, the children brought life to the area; they stood in sharp contrast to the destroyed grey walls and burnt cars. They drew suns and flowers on ruins. Have you ever seen the sun rise from the rubble? This is the resilience of the children of my country.
Like pretty flowers themselves and with angelic voices, Ansam and the children full-heartedly burst into the song they rehearsed for weeks. Generously gifted by UNICEF’s Regional Ambassador Zade Dirani to the children of Syria, the song is a hopeful message to the whole world for a brighter future in a peaceful Syria.
Watching the video for the first time, knowing what these children had been through and the long way they had come, I couldn’t fight back my tears. Only months before, these same children now singing and dancing in joy were living a nightmare. In their few years of life, they had witnessed so much violence and fear. These same children were uprooted from their homes, many of them not once or twice, but up to seven times. These same children lost friends, family members, schools and a sense of belonging. To see them spreading love and hope far away from the harsh shelters they now call home, was a dream come true.
Only months earlier, we started our project with Awtar — a music group in the capital Damascus — piloting the use of music, songs, art and drawing as a creative tool for psychosocial support for children inside Syria.
“I had a dream. I was once so moved by Meryl Streep in the film Music of the Heart, which is based on a true story of inspiring under-privileged children through music,” said Hanaa Singer, UNICEF Representative. “As I spoke to Awtar group about my vision, I saw their eyes light up with excitement. They promised then and there to make this dream a reality for so many children.”
And so the journey began.
Dedicated teams of musicians and art teachers went to 16 shelters for internally displaced families in Damascus and its surroundings to introduce art into the lives of children. The teams would spend hours with the children, teaching them how to sing and play musical instruments, and writing lyrics inspired by their lives. The group produced 21 songs with messages of hope, resilience, and determination, inspirited by the children themselves.
“At the beginning, this project was about our responsibility towards the children of our country,” Amir Karajouli, a manager on Awtar’s team, told me. “But as we got to know the children, it became about our honest belief in them as partners in building a beautiful future, away from despair and conflict.”
The teams also taught children how to draw based on a manual developed by the group, as a means of sharing experiences with their peers, building their self-confidence, expressing themselves and raising their hope for the future.
“I drew children playing on the swings because when this war is over, I want to go back home and play with my friends like we used to,” 12-year-old Mouna told me while showing me her painting during my visit to one of the centres.
Her friend Aya, 11, quickly jumped in: “I like when the instructors tell us to draw whatever comes to our mind, I sometimes draw happy things or sad things I remember, depending on how I feel.”
Whenever the musicians and art teachers arrived at the shelters, children would gather around them in a big ring. Chaos would turn to calm as they regained moments of their childhood playing, singing, and painting. It was like they were bewitched by music.
“We used to hear shelling and bombardment, now we only hear songs and music,” said one little girl. With that, she showed the hope this programme brought to the lives of so many children.
I too was bewitched by the children. As a child living in a region of conflict, war was my biggest fear growing up. Little did I know that the children of my country would one day have to ask for their right to live a happy and peaceful childhood.
But seeing them and their inspiring determination, I know that no “rock bottom” will ever break their resilience; for every time they smile, there is hope.
Yasmine Saker is a Communication Officer working with UNICEF Syria.