by Yogendra Shakya.
The Syrian refugee crisis has had a profound effect on us and our children. It has been really hard to shelter our two young children (6 years old and 4 years old) from the daily news filled with heart breaking stories from Syria: the large scale destruction of homes and schools, thousands of lives lost, millions of families forced to leave their homes and become refugees, starving children, and refugee families being mistreated along the way. As a new parent, we were unsure at first about whether or how to talk about this critical issue which the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, calls the “biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.”
Initially, we decided to block the news from our kids.
But we quickly realized that it was impossible to shield them from this. They sensed our sadness and pain, and saw us in tears more than a couple of times. They caught glimpses of those distressing images and started asking questions. At first, we ignored their questions thinking they would just move on to something else. But the questions did not stop. And for every question we answered, there would be a dozen more. What happened to their homes, daddy? Where are all those people going? Why were they walking and not taking the subway or car? Where do they sleep?
So we mustered up enough courage and started talking with them about what is happening in Syria, about Syrian refugees, and about refugees in general. We were very anxious in the beginning about how they would respond or how it would affect them. But like so many other times, we were amazed at how incredibly intelligent and understanding children are. They listened with such deep interest as we tried nervously to explain what real fighting and guns do (and how it is not anything like the toy guns and light sabers they are used to), why some places can become unsafe to live in, what it means to have your home destroyed and to become a refugee etc.
And yes, we had to talk about little Alan Kurdi as well, and explained to them why and how he died. There was a moment of silence. And then a volley of questions that run the spectrum of innocent curiosity to the deeply profound. Why didn’t they know how to swim? Why didn’t their daddy and mommy take them to swimming classes? Why didn’t they have life jackets? Why didn’t someone help them? What is war, daddy? Is Canada safe?
And of course, the oft asked question from kids overexposed to the binary world of superheroes culture: “are they good guys or bad guys?” Our attempts to explain that things are more complicated did not really work. We realized that some discussions will have to wait.
Other things were easier to explain, specially the notion of helping and compassion. We showed them the image that artist @mystictris (Tristan Fitzgerald) had made titled “Don’t let Compassion Drown.” The image included a lifebuoy encircling a heart. Our kids are at the phase where they love anything that has a heart. Also, just recently in their swimming classes they learned how to stay afloat in water, and the key purpose of life jackets. So they were really drawn to this image of a lifebuoy around the heart.
More importantly, we wanted to make sure that we talked to them about how Canadians were trying to help Syrian refugee families come to Canada. We mentioned that long time ago Canada had welcomed 60,000 people from Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos) within two years when there was war in that region. We told them that Canada was given the Nansen award (a “medal”) for this good work. Our older kid had recently received his first medal (for participating in soccer). Since then, our kids love the idea of getting medals. So they were pleasantly proud that Canada got a medal.
We told them how our current government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. But that many Canadians felt that this was not enough. Some want the Canadian government to bring at least 60,000 Syrian refugees (like Canada did with Vietnamese refugees). Others had suggested that we should bring 200,000 refugees every year. Like most children, our kids love big numbers. The bigger, the better. So they really liked the 200,000 idea. We agreed with them.
We told them about how people all across Canada including schools, teachers and students were raising money to sponsor Syrian families. We showed them the lovely clip of how students and parents at Dewson public school in Toronto had raised money to sponsor a Syrian family to Canada (the Gulesarian family). They really enjoyed watching the clip of little Bedros Gulesarian (six years old) playing in the snow and going to Tim Horton’s with his family for the first time. They asked to watch this clip many times. Bedros looked just like them. Afterwards, they wanted to go out and play in snow just like Bedros. It was a moment of raw human connection for them. Every time we go to Tim Horton’s for donuts and hot chocolate, they recall how Gulesarian family had accidentally ordered coffee for little Bedros.
There was another video clip that also really connected with them. This was after the Paris attacks. It is a clip of a father explaining to his son (Brendan) about how flowers and candles are more powerful than guns. They asked to watch this clip a hundred times as well. This clip really helped to convince our kids that love is the most powerful thing in the world. And to this day, in our home, toy guns and light sabers can be defeated by the power of love and flowers.
We then explained to our kids that we are also working with some parents and friends to raise money to sponsor a Syrian family, a family with children. They got excited about the idea.
While we were happy to see how interested they were, we did not really know what our kids were absorbing and learning from these conversations. Nor were we sure what kind of impact it was having on them. We wondered if we had a made a mistake talking to them at such early age about these heavy issues. Every time our kids said they had a bad dream, we became concerned. We wondered if it was because of the distressing images they had seen.
But our fears were put to rest when our son made the simple but moving artwork [the image in the beginning of this blog post] for one of his school projects. The project involved students designing their own personalized greeting card. Parents could order their desired number of greeting cards with a percentage of profits going to the school. Since it was near Christmas time, my son’s class decided to get all the students to make their cards on the theme of Christmas tree.
After an intense but quick conversation with our son that we don’t have and we will never get a Christmas tree at our home, we asked him if he wanted to make a card related to helping Syrian refugees. He agreed. The “Don’t let compassion drown” image had made a strong impression on him so we told him he could do something that builds on that idea. He took that imagery and did a cut-and-paste artwork depicting a heart in Canada pulling another heart from the sea using a lifebuoy. It was a very telling and powerful image in its simplicity.
It is then that we realized that it is never too early to teach kids about refugees and humanitarianism. Children truly have such strong sense of empathy. We just need to talk to them using images and concepts that they can currently relate to (in our case it was hearts, lifebuoy, medals, seeing another kid having fun playing in the snow etc). Moreover, it is important to keep nurturing these values of empathy on a regular basis so children grow up to become champions for peace, compassion and humanitarianism. The world desperately needs such champions.
And as most parents know, kids love the idea of helping. It did not take us much to convince our son that for his sixth birthday celebrations we would ask his friends not to bring gifts but to give money towards sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. In lieu of gifts, we raised close to $600 from his birthday party; this became the first donation for our Swansea Welcomes Refugees initiative. And we used his artwork as the main image for our website. He was very proud of all this.
For being a good sport, we got our son what he had wished for his birthday: two light sabers that light up and make sound just like in the Star Wars movie. He plays with them often with his sister and friends. And they always make the adults be the “bad guys.”