A Boy, Silenced by War, Speaks
Teacher Coaches Parents to Help Son Break Free from the Impact of the Syrian Civil War
All his life, Ayman*, 5, has known nothing but war. A seemingly endless war, with its deafening noises, 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 affected more by the war than his older brothers. Plus, due to food shortages in the city, Rana found herself undernourished, and unable to produce enough milk to feed and comfort Ayman.
"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."
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 football inside – tile floors instead of grass, walls instead of a pitch.
But life in a war zone took a devastating toll on the boy – Ayman wouldn’t speak. His 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. The transition to life as refugees was not easy for the family. Home was now a tent in a sprawling city, where electricity was only available from 4:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. daily. Where winter rains flooded the temporary homes.
"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.
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. 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. The playground with swings and slides outside the kindergarten classroom gave Ayman a place to play and have fun. Play is also important for a child’s development – it teaches them how to count, to solve problems, and to get along with others.
Ayman, 5, attended the kindergarten three days a week and received individualized support 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.
"Ayman was very aggressive," said Safayyeh, recalling Ayman's first few days of school. "But after starting kindergarten, he 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 was learning in kindergarten at home.
After two weeks of school, Ayman began to show progress in his communication, according to his mother. "He’s now more open to playing with other boys, though not girls," said his mother, laughing.
Now Ayman is just like the other boys – playing football with his brothers, the neighbors or other boys. His favorite cartoon show, Captain Majid is about a boy who plays football. Plus, he enjoys teaching his younger brother all about kindergarten.
Once muted by war, Ayman is silent no more.
*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.
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