“Reading stories for my children every day is as important as breathing,” says Ibtehal, a mother of three girls and one boy, living in Azraq refugee camp since 2015. 

Photo: NRC/ Hassan Hijazi
Read caption “Reading stories for my children every day is as important as breathing,” says Ibtehal. Photo: Hassan Hijazi/NRC

Tales from our refugee camps

Hassan Hijazi|Published 01. Aug 2017
“Reading stories for my children every day is as important as breathing,” says Ibtehal. The mother of four has lived in Azraq refugee camp since 2015.

Ibtehal heard about the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) learning centre in Azraq from her neighbours in the camp, and decided to join the centre’s storytelling class.

“The teacher explained storytelling and writing to us, then she divided us in groups and asked us to come up with a fictional story that represents our lives in the camp,” says Ibtehal.

Writing children’s stories

Through the storytelling class Syrian refugee parents learned to write children’s stories, and their stories were all collected into an anthology book named “Once upon a time in Zaatari and Azraq, Tales from our refugee camps”.

“I would read bedtime stories for my children in Syria. They were very young back then,” says Nisreen, a mother of three living in Azraq.

“Now I don’t read anything for them because they are not interested anymore. With this book, which is full of drawing and illustration, I believe that my children will be more interested in listening to the stories.”

Ibtehal wrote a story about wool balls. The story was inspired by the cold days in Azraq camp and talks about a girl who used to walk by a wool shop, staring at the colorful wool balls. She would walk home shaking from the cold weather. Then the wool balls decided together to make a wool shirt to give to the girl. “The idea of the story is to make children open their eyes to any child who needs help. Sometimes there are people in need of help, but we don’t pay attention to them.” Ibtehal said.

Photo: NRC/ Hassan Hijazi
Read caption Ibtehal wrote a story about wool yarn balls. “The idea of the story is to make children open their eyes to any child who needs help. Sometimes there are people in need of help, but we don’t pay attention to them,” she said. Photo: Hassan Hijazi/NRC

Inspired by cold days

Ibtehal wrote a story inspired by the cold days in Azraq camp and tells of a girl who used to walk by a yarn shop, staring at the colourful wool yarn balls. Then she would walk home, shaking from the cold weather. Together, the wool yarn balls in the shop decided to make a wool shirt for the girl.

“The idea of the story is to make children open their eyes to any child who needs help. Sometimes there are people in need of help, but we don’t pay attention to them,” says Ibtehal.

Nisreen wrote the story “Omar and the white Dove” about a boy who talks to animals and become their friend. One day, Omar almost broke one of the eggs in a dove’s nest, and the dove was very angry at him. He apologized and the dove accepted the apology when she understood that Omar is a good boy.

“I wrote the story to teach children that we should always think twice before we act, and to teach them about being kind to animals,” says Nisreen.

Reconnecting with their roots

By organising reading activities for children at the NRC learning centres in Azraq and Zaatari camps, Syrian facilitators help them reconnect with their roots through the Hakawti heritage, a narrating style that was very common in Syria before the age of new media.

“It is very important to keep our children aware of their heritage,” emphasizes Nisreen. “We lost everything, our houses and belongings. We don’t want to lose our culture and heritage. These traditions must live on. I’m very glad to be part of keeping them alive. I really hope to have more trainings like this, and to write more stories.”

Once Upon a Time in Zaatari and Azraq

In July 2017 the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) launched the illustrated children’s book “Once Upon a Time in Zaatari and Azraq”.

The illustrated children’s anthology book is a collection of stories written by Syrian refugees in Zaatari and Azraq camps. The book was illustrated and published by Kitabna. Free copies of the book were distributed to parents whose children are enrolled in NRC learning center.

“We wanted this book that keeps alive the beautiful tradition of storytelling in the Middle East, Hakawati to be read by the Syrian facilitators to the children at the learning center, but also by Syrian refugee parents to their children at home, in the camps.” said Christian De Luca, Education Project Manager for NRC in Jordan.

In Zaatari and Azraq camps NRC provides complementary classes to children between the age of 6 and 15 to support the education they receive at school, in line with the official national curriculum. Additionally, NRC’s education centres provide pedagogic tools for the students and the teachers to ensure that the learning process is effective. That includes computer labs, art rooms, and more. The centres also include safe spaces that consist of playgrounds and sports fields.