A Boy, Silenced by War, Speaks

Kindergarten teacher coaches parents to help son break free from the crushing impact of war

“I dream of playing in a real grass football pitch,” said five-year-old future footballer Ayman*. February 25, 2016. Photo Credit: Hassan Hijazi for Save the Children.

All his life, Ayman*, 5, has known nothing but war. A war, with its deafeningly loud noises, that left the raven-haired boy who loves football, completely silent.

He was born at a military hospital in 2011 when the Syrian war began. In normal times, babies are lulled to sleep, but these were not normal times. According to his mother Rana*, newborn Ayman was roused relentlessly by the terrifying noises all around him. She recalls that even from an early age, Ayman was altered more by the war than his two older two-year-old twin brothers.

"(Ayman) couldn’t sleep because of the air strikes and noises," his mother said. "We all were scared, we couldn’t sleep. Ayman kept on crying all night."

And lacking the proper nutrition from food shortages in the city, his mother was not able to produce enough breastmilk to feed and comfort Ayman, like she did for her older sons.

As the war entered year two, Ayman also turned two. His father, fearing for his children’s safety, had Ayman and his brothers play indoors. He still wanted his children to have a childhood, so he taught Ayman to play his favorite sport, football, inside - tile floors instead of grass, walls instead of a pitch.

But life in a war zone took a more devastating toll on the boy. Ayman did not speak. Ayman's parents believe it was due to what he saw and heard in their besieged city in Syria – armed men breaking down doors, dead bodies lying in the street and sirens going off.

"He had a hard time speaking and he started stuttering," said his mother. "All I wanted for him was to say the word 'mama' or 'baba', the easiest words."

The war dragged on. In year three, Ayman and his family fled to the border of Jordan. There, they joined tens of thousands of Syrian families in the Za’atari refugee camp. Home was now a tent in a sprawling city, where electricity is only available from 4:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. daily and where winter rains flood the temporary homes.

The transition to life as a refugee was not easy for the family.

"We couldn't get used to the camp when we arrived. It was hard for us to adapt to the new environment, especially to living in a tent. I remember waking up crying. I couldn't sleep. I was depressed, especially when I remembered that Ayman couldn’t speak," said his mother, at a playground in Za'atari camp earlier this month.

Although Ayman had left behind the sights and sounds of war, he remained silent.

Help finally came when Ayman's parents enrolled him in a Save the Children-supported kindergarten (Little Hands) at the camp. Ayman, 5, attends the kindergarten three days a week. Kindergarten helps children like Ayman prepare socially and academically for school through activities like playing, reading, writing and basic math. For children affected by war, it also provides much-needed structure, a routine and a safe place to be a child again.

“I consider all the children who attend kindergarten my kids,” said Safeyyeh, a kindergarten teacher at Za’atari camp. March 2, 2016. Photo Credit: Hassan Hijazi for Save the Children.

Ayman got the support he needed from a caring teacher Safayyeh, a Jordanian woman with a passion for teaching. Unable to have children of her own, her love for children is apparent. She commutes daily to her job at the camp, even visiting her students on her days off. She immediately noticed how the war had impacted Ayman.

"He [Ayman] was very aggressive," said Safayyeh, recalling Ayman's first few days of school. "But after starting kindergarten, Ayman changed his attitude from aggressive to hyperactive in a good way. He became very active in classes, and began to talk."

The teachers gave Ayman's parents daily updates on his activities and progress at school, and coached them on how they could put into practice what he is learning in kindergarten at home.

A playground with swings and slides outside the kindergarten classroom, gave Ayman a place to play and have fun. Play is important for a child’s development. It teaches children to count, how to solve problems, and how to get along with others.

After two weeks of school, Ayman began to show progress in his communication, according to his mother. "He is now more open to playing with other boys, though not girls," said his mother, laughing.

These days, when Ayman is not in school, he spends all his spare time playing football with his brothers, the neighbors or other boys, and usually after watching his favorite cartoon show, Captain Majid about (what else) a boy who plays football. He also is teaching his three-year-old brother what he is learning in kindergarten.

Ayman, once muted by war, is silent no more.

Brotherly love between Ayman*, 5, and his three brothers at Za’atari camp in Jordan. Photo: Hassan Hijazi/Save the Children

*Name has been changed for protection

Save the Children operates three kindergartens for Syrian children in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. The program serves more than 2,200 children, ages 3 to 5, per week.

After hearing his story, football icon and Global Artist Ambassador for Save the Children Cristiano Ronaldo posted a photo on social media to show his support for Ayman* and all kids affected by this crisis.

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