This Camp is a Sanctuary for These Children Refugees

For most second generation Syrian Americans, the start of summer used to mark a bisection of the year, the moment when U.S. based Syrians would travel with their family "back home," their parents' home of Syria. With the onset of brutal, unpredictable violence at the start of March of 2011 by the Assad regime in response to countrywide protests, Syrian American families have discontinued the annual pilgrimage home.

However, Syrian American youth have increasingly used the "open summer" to return to the region to assist humanitarian relief efforts for Syrian refugees. Southern Californian resident Kinda Hibrawi is just one of many Syrian Americans returning to be of service. 

Last March, Syrian American artist Kinda Hibrawi, full of resignation by the enduring conflict and escalating humanitarian crisis, decided to momentarily take her mind off of the bleak situation in her ancestral homeland of Syria, a place she spent much of her upbringing. Safe and secure in her Orange County, California home, she cruised through hundreds of channels before settling on a biographical documentary on longtime human rights and social justice activist Harry Belafonte, "Sing Your Song." Not only did the film magnetically enthrall Hibrawi with its riveting storytelling and Belafonte's legacy of social justice activism, but it also inspired her to make her own contribution to fighting an injustice near and dear to her heart. Hibrawi was struck by the fact that Belafonte, she said, "was a man who didn't have to get involved in human rights and he did anyway. Over and over again. He made other people's struggles his own."

The moment that unleashed an unstoppable running freight train of an idea was Belafonte's first trip to Ethiopia during the 1983-85 famine (Belafonte responded by organizing relief efforts in the U.S. for East Africa, including the recording of the international hit "We Are the World").

For Hibrawi, Belafonte's most potent contribution rested on the awareness he generated about the devastating famine to hit East Africa by exposing the U.S. to their plight and shining a light in a humane manner. Watching the scene led Hibrawi to wonder, "Why isn’t anyone doing this for us? For Syria?" She continued, "People are displaced. What are their stories? Stories in the media are sensationalized. What is the ordinary, common person's story that we are not hearing or seeing? We are only given one side of the story — the blood, gore and death." She desparately wanted to see the other side of the story.

The movie inspired Kinda to take action, to answer her own questions of service. “I knew it was bad in Syria and wanted to see how bad it really was there and I wanted to do something for the children because they are the future of Syria and we need to invest in their well being,” reflected Hibrawi. She was resolutely focused on working with children given her three-year experience of working with children at the cancer ward at the Children's Hospital in Orange County. "Giving a child a creative outlet," she learned, would help the children “forget why they were there; make them feel like that they were normal kids." That same day, she messaged a family friend, Lina Sergie, who had experience with visiting the refugee and IDP camps, asking her if she was planning on going to the refugee camps in Turkey. 

This open-ended ping transformed into a service project for displaced Syrian children. More than just expose the world to the effect of the crisis on the "ordinary" child, they would give the children something they had been desperately missing: the innocence of a carefree children, a reprieve from totalizing war, the opportunity to play. 

Camp Zeitouna was born.

Initially, Hibrawi and Sergie planned to create a summer camp for IDP children in Atmeh, Syria, a town fifteen minutes into Syria from the Turkish border that would include arts, sports, and hygiene workshops (photography, calligraphy, storytelling, quilting and dental hygiene demonstrations and check-ups) and culminate in the building of a soccer field for the children at the camp.

Hash-tagged #Play4Syria, Hibrawi, Attar and a team of international volunteers traveled to Reyhanli last June to lead the workshops, build a soccer field and a playground, collect stories and document the condition of children.

As Belafonte brought awareness, Zeitouna intended to do the same and motivate Syrian American expats to be "hands on" activists on the ground and to empower local activists. Hibrawi struggled not only how to humanize displaced children in the eyes of Americans who had become accustomed to seeing Syria only through a geography of distant violence, but she was terrified to go into a war zone. She quelled her fears by reminding herself of her commitment to the children and documenting their stories, and even Belafonte's words, that "shook" her: "From the time I get up to the time I go to sleep I seek out the injustices done to humankind."

As the war (or "revolution" as many inside Syria refer to the conflict) continues, Camp Zeitouna has since evolved conceptually and in nomenclature: "Zeitouna" (dropping the "Camp" and expanding from IDPs to all displaced children). In December, the Zeitouna team will return to Turkey to provide 1,500 refugee children in Reyhanli with arts, sports, and dental hygiene workshops and school supplies. They will also bring with them winter care packages to be delivered to children inside Syria.

Although aimed at creating a space for Syrian American expats to "give back" and raise general awareness in the U.S., Zeitouna has attracted some surprising supporters. Hibrawi was recently contacted by a 7th grade teacher from The Bishop's school in La Jolla, California who accidentally encountered the hashtag #Play4Syria when searching for ways to demonstrate the power of social media. She was messaged by the teacher, "My kids want to help. We love the idea of soccer and play. What can we do to help?” The middle school then conducted research on Syrian refugees and brainstormed fundraising ideas which include a bake sale, a "change jar" in every classroom, and making bracelets out of their old shirts in a "buy one, give one to a refugee" campaign (raising funds and also giving a refugee child a bracelet).