Syrian Refugee Children Find Belonging and Reclaim Identity

Emily Abel, Latter-day Saint Charities guest writer
22 January 2021

Jusoor is a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing Syria and helping youth realize their potential. Latter-day Saint Charities has assisted Jusoor with their educational efforts, which include this special program designed to help refugees regain some of what was lost through their displacement.

Dalia sat for several moments looking at the cards with her family members’ names written on them.

“What are you thinking?” she was asked.

“I am there,” she said, pointing at the center card with her name on it. “And my family is all around me.”

Dalia is at school participating in a special curriculum called the Identity Program. This program is designed to help refugee children connect to their heritage, having lost nearly all that made their lives normal.

Most of Dalia’s family were forced to flee Syria because of war, and they are now scattered. Approximately 6.6 million other Syrians have a similar story.1 Homes, communities, and treasured relationships are often left behind in a refugee’s terror-filled flight. Official documents like transcripts, diplomas, and birth certificates—items that legitimize identity—are often lost in the chaos. All these deprivations have severe mental, emotional, and spiritual consequences.

For Dalia and millions of other displaced children, regaining a feeling of connection to family and personal identity is crucial to moving forward with life. Connecting with their roots will be difficult in the turmoil that surrounds them, but Dalia and her friends won’t be doing it on their own.

Jusoor is a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing Syria and helping youth realize their potential. Latter-day Saint Charities has assisted Jusoor with their educational efforts, which include this special program designed to help refugees regain some of what was lost through their displacement.

The Identity Program

As an academic director for Jusoor, Suha Tutunji helps oversee schools for Syrian refugee children now living in Lebanon. After observing the children’s needs, Suha developed and implemented the Identity Program, which she calls the most important part of the schools’ curriculum.

The program’s objectives are to teach the children to be proud of their Syrian heritage and to instill in them a desire to go back and rebuild a better place. The children learn their country’s history and gain an appreciation of its diversity.

“The idea is to help children and youth remember that they are part of something—that despite what they’ve lost and been separated from, they have connections and family stories they can carry with them wherever they may go,” added Brett Macdonald of Latter-day Saint Charities.

A student in the Identity Program course. Photo courtesy Jusoor.

Latter-day Saint Charities and Save the Children Italy provided funding to build a proper school to teach the Identity Program. Previously, the children met in large tents set up in refugee camps, with classrooms divided by cardboard. The tents have now been replaced with two buildings with six to eight rooms. Teaching materials, including stationery and textbooks, were provided to the schools. Three schools now serve approximately 1,200 children between the ages of 5 and 14.

Each week, the children engage in activities to learn about their identities. For example, they share stories with their classmates about their hometowns, and their parents come to share traditional foods or teach songs common in their areas.

Culture and Family Flash Cards

The children also study flash cards and posters that describe positive aspects of Syria’s culture and history. For instance, one flash card might have a picture of children playing a traditional Syrian game next to a picture of a game played in Lebanon. Other cards explain traditional foods, farming techniques, and important stories from Syria’s history. On the back of the cards is an explanation of the pictures in Arabic and English. The cards help the children maintain pride in their Syrian heritage while adjusting to their new home in Lebanon.

Another set of cards helps the children record four generations of family names and stories. Research has shown that a knowledge of one’s personal family history builds resilience and a sense of belonging.2

A student working on his family book. Photo courtesy Jusoor.

“They need to know what’s special about where they come from,” Suha said. “I want them to understand that they are human beings. They have history; they have stories like every other people.”

Suha has seen encouraging results from the Identity Program. The children are eager to hear the lessons and ask for more. Parents have expressed gladness that their personal and national histories are not being lost. And the children have told their teachers that they want to go back to Syria because they are proud of their home country.

Other nonprofit organizations have shown interest in the Identity Program. When the pandemic restrictions ease and allow schools to fully reopen, Suha plans to share the curriculum and train teachers on how to implement it.

Staying Hopeful through COVID-19

When COVID-19 forced the closure of the refugee schools, Suha looked for a way to keep the children engaged and hopeful.

“We came up with a lot of ideas to keep them learning and keep their minds working and thinking other than ‘We are stuck in this tent; I want to go away.’ [School] gives them something to work on, something to look forward to,” Suha said.

As most of the children had at least one smartphone at home, classes continued over WhatsApp. A teacher would record a lesson and send it to the children, who would complete an exercise on a piece of paper, take a picture of it, and send it back to the teacher.

For the students who did not have smartphones, Latter-day Saint Charities provided funding for booklets and other needed supplies so that around 50 children could have something productive to focus on.

Suha looks forward to a continued partnership with Latter-day Saint Charities. She believes that education, including learning about who you are, “is the most important tool you can give the children. No matter what.”