Saturday, March 8, 2014

International Women’s Day: What if…

Icons photo by Max Dashu
Happy International Women’s Day ladies.
What if, for just one day, every single woman on the planet did absolutely nothing?
What if, for just one day, we lay down all our “tools,” just sat down, stretched our legs and watched the world run by men?
I think it would sound and look like Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai with no cars. I think the world would stop!
With a world population of 7 billion on October 31, 2011, according to the United Nations  -- or 3 487 869 males and 3 439 427 037 females according to a 2011 estimate by the worldstat info -- I would love to see that happen.
Despite the number of men and women in the world being roughly equal -- men hold a slight lead with 102 men for 100 women (in 2010, as stated by French National Institute for Demographic Studies) -- women’s equality is still unequal.
International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrated today and throughout March, is under the theme Inspiring Change. Equality For Women Is Progress For All is the United Nations’ theme this year.
“Countries with more gender equality have better economic growth. Companies with more women leaders perform better. Peace agreements that include women are more durable. Parliaments with more women enact more legislation on key social issues such as health, education, anti-discrimination and child support. The evidence is clear: equality for women means progress for all,” says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Inspiring Change encourages advocacy for women's advancement everywhere in every way. It calls for challenging the status quo for women's equality and vigilance inspiring positive change.
With more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass of women's visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life, one could think we have gained true equality. Unfortunately, women are still not paid equally, we still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women's education, health and the violence against them is worse than that of men.
Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread violations of human rights. A 2013 WHO global study shows that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence.
I have a firm belief that education can win us the future. Cultural, social and political benefits can be translated into society through education. The first step on the long road to equal opportunities and development has to be through education.
It is sad that parts of the human race have not yet learned men and women can be partners. It is sad and repulsive that many men still need to show their superiority through violence and rape.
Women’s rights as human beings are non-negotiable.
Today, on Women’s Day, as I do most days, I thank the women in my life for being who they are, for guiding me and for shining a light on me.
Working at IF Boutique, a ladies’ store, I meet so many women on a daily basis. Every one of them adds something special to my day.
But most of all, thanks go to Maya for being the rock that has sheltered my billowing sand in the difficult times I am going through.
Although my mom Vicky has been gone for 22 years, thanks are always due to her for being the strong, intelligent and outspoken women that she was. She taught me to have a voice but to be tolerant, understanding and without prejudice. Mom had class, insight, wisdom, courage and humor -- in health and in sickness -- until her last hours. Vicky remains my reference for a great woman.
On this special day, I equally give thanks and celebrate the men in my life who have helped and continue to help and support me. I especially thank fellow blogger ArabSaga, who for the past 40 year has walked every step of the way with me and who is now fighting the demon and hell of cancer.
We are preordained to be a team – women and men. There’s no escape.
Let’s walk life hand in hand and celebrate Human's Day, with no need to qualify the gender…
Related International Women’s Day posts:
The women in my life -- March 8, 2011
Dearest Mom… -- 21 March 2011

Monday, February 24, 2014

UNHCR urges world access to 100,000 Syrians in 2015/16

A Syrian boy at a refugee transit site in Arsal, Lebanon (UNHCR/M. Hofer)
With  no end in sight to the three-year fighting in Syria, the UN refugee agency on February 21 called upon countries around the world to make multi-annual commitments towards a goal of providing resettlement and other forms of admission for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016.

UNHCR had earlier called upon states to offer resettlement or other forms of admission to 30,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees by the end of 2014. To date, 20 countries have offered more than 18,800 places towards this goal.
There are currently more than 2.4 million refugees registered in the region. In Lebanon there are some 932,000, Jordan has 574,000, Turkey some 613,000, Iraq 223,000 and Egypt has about 134,000 refugees.
"UNHCR remains confident that the 30,000 goal will be met by the end of the year through a significant number of submissions to the United States," spokesman Dan McNorton told journalists in Geneva.
As part of the emergency response, UNHCR is urging states to consider a number of solutions that can provide secure, urgent and effective protection for these people. Such solutions could include resettlement, humanitarian admission or individual sponsorship; programs that enable Syrian relatives to join family members; scholarships for Syrian students in order to prevent a "lost generation" of young people; and medical evacuation for refugees with life-threatening health conditions.
Arsal, Lebanon
More than 10,000 Syrians have fled over the mountains into Lebanon since a fresh offensive on the city of  Yabroud – in Reef Dimashq governorate about 80 km north of Damascus -- and     its outskirts began in mid February. The new arrivals represent a second wave of refugees to escape fighting in the same region of Syria, following an earlier influx in November 2013.
Syrian refugee tents in Arsal (The Daily Star/Hassan Shaaban)
The new refugees are arriving in a town that has already taken in huge numbers in recent months. The population of Arsal, normally 35,000, has now surpassed 83,000 – with far more Syrians now than Lebanese.
Community centers, mosques and other "collective shelters" have long since run out of space. Across the town, a patchwork of blue and white tents and impromptu shelters is filling up any open space. Some new arrivals are living in vans and the backs of trucks. With this new influx, the number of informal tented settlements in the town has climbed from six to more than 30, writes UNHCR’s Andrew Purvis from Arsal.
The latest exodus from Syria began in earnest when bombing intensified on February12.
To avoid shelling, many of those fleeing Yabroud are finding alternative routes over the mountains along rugged mountain tracks still blanketed with snow.
For many of the refugees, the escape to Lebanon follows several years of displacement and deprivation within Syria.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Syira UNSCR 2139: Now show us the beef!

The Security Council's unanimous vote Saturday

As barrel bombs continue to rain down on the northwestern city of Aleppo, the United Nations Security Council on Saturday (February 22) united for the first time on Syria and issued a resolution on access to humanitarian aid in the war-torn country.
UNSCR 2139 says both Syrian government and opposition forces must allow aid convoys to reach civilians.
Although it does not threaten sanctions, the resolution warns of "further steps" if the sides do not comply.
Russia and China, who vetoed previous similar resolutions during the three-year war, voted in favor.
The resolution calls for the cessation of shelling, aerial bombardments and barrels bombs while demanding cross-border access for aid convoys as well as an end to sieges across Syria.
Will Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comply? As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating…
Reuters quotes Lithuanian UN Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, president of the 15-member Security Council for February, as describing the unanimous approval of the resolution, drafted by Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg, as a "moment of hope" for Syria's people.
Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the Council after the vote that Moscow supported the move because "many Russian considerations were borne in mind and as a result the document took on a balanced nature."
China's UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi said Beijing was "gravely concerned" by Syria's worsening humanitarian situation. "We strongly urge all the parties in Syria to implement this resolution in good faith," he said.
The resolution asks UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report to the Council in 30 days on implementation and "expresses its intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance."
But it is unlikely Russia will agree to any action if Syria's government is found to be in non-compliance.
The United Nations says 9.3 million people need help -- nearly half the population -- and that well over 100,000 people have been killed. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that more than 136,000 have been killed since March 2011.
The resolution "demands that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies... including across conflict lines and across borders."
It also demands all parties "cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs, and methods of warfare... to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering."
The following is the full text of the 22 February 2014 UN Security Council Resolution 2139 (Syria -- Humanitarian Assistance)
* * * *
The Security Council
Recalling its resolutions 2042 (2012)2043 (2012) and 2118 (2013), and its Presidential Statements of 3 August 2011, 21 March 2012, 5 April 2012 and 2 October 2013,
Reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,
Being appalled at the unacceptable and escalating level of violence and the death of well over 100,000 people in Syria, including over 10,000 children, as reported by the UN Secretary-General and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict,
Expressing grave alarm at the significant and rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria, in particular the dire situation of hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in besieged areas, most of whom are besieged by the Syrian armed forces and some by opposition groups, as well as the dire situation of over 3 million people in hard-to-reach areas, and deploring the difficulties in providing, and the failure to provide, access for the humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need inside Syria,
Emphasizing the need to respect the UN guiding principles of humanitarian emergency assistance and stressing the importance of such assistance being delivered on the basis of need, devoid of any political prejudices and aims, commending the efforts of the United Nations and all humanitarian and medical personnel in Syria and in neighboring countries, and condemning all acts or threats of violence against United Nations staff and humanitarian actors, which have resulted in the death, injury and detention of many humanitarian personnel,
Expressing grave concern at the increasing number of refugees and internally displaced persons caused by the conflict in Syria, which has a destabilizing impact on the entire region, and underscoring its appreciation for the significant and admirable efforts that have been made by the countries of the region, notably Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, to accommodate the more than 2.4 million refugees who have fled Syria as a result of the on-going violence, while acknowledging the enormous political, socioeconomic and financial impact of the presence of large-scale populations in these countries, and underscoring the need for all parties to respect and maintain the security and civilian character of camps for refugees and internally displaced persons,
Welcoming the pledges totaling $2.5 billion at the Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria, hosted by Kuwait on 15 January 2014, and expressing its appreciation to Member States and regional and sub-regional organizations that have pledged to provide humanitarian assistance to people in need in all parts of Syria, including internally displaced persons, as well as to refugees in neighboring host countries, and calling on all Member States to ensure the timely disbursement of pledges and continued support in line with growing humanitarian needs,
Calling on all parties to immediately end all violence which has led to human suffering in Syria, save Syria’s rich societal mosaic and cultural heritage, and take appropriate steps to ensure the protection of Syria’s World Heritage Sites,
Strongly condemning the increased terrorist attacks resulting in numerous casualties and destruction carried out by organizations and individuals associated with Al-Qaeda, its affiliates and other terrorist groups, and reiterating its call on all parties to commit to putting an end to terrorist acts perpetrated by such organizations and individuals, while reaffirming that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed,
Expressing its regret that its Presidential Statement of 2 October 2013 (S/PRST/2013/15) has not delivered as expected and has not yet translated into meaningful progress on the ground, and that humanitarian aid delivery continues to be impeded throughout Syria, while condemning all cases of denial of humanitarian access and recalling that arbitrary denial of humanitarian access and depriving civilians of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supply and access, can constitute a violation of international humanitarian law,
Emphasizing that the humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate in the absence of a political solution to the crisis, reiterating its endorsement of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012 (Annex II of Resolution 2118 (2113)) and demanding that all parties work towards the immediate and comprehensive implementation of the Geneva Communiqué aimed at bringing an immediate end to all violence, violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international law, and facilitating the Syrian-led political process launched in Montreux on 22 January 2014, leading to a transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and enables them independently and democratically to determine their own future,
1.       Strongly condemns the widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Syrian authorities, as well as the human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law by armed groups, including all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, as well as all grave violations and abuses committed against children in contravention of applicable international law, such as recruitment and use, killing and maiming, rape, attacks on schools and hospitals as well as arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, ill treatment and use as human shields, as described in the United Nations Secretary-General’s report on children and armed conflict in Syria (S/2014/31);
2.       Demands that all parties immediately put an end to all forms of violence, irrespective of where it comes from, cease and desist from all violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of human rights, and reaffirm their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, and stresses that some of these violations may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity;
3.       Demands that all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs, and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, and recalls in this regard the obligation to respect and ensure respect for international humanitarian law in all circumstances, and further recalls, in particular, the obligation to distinguish between civilian populations and combatants, and the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks, and attacks against civilians and civilian objects as such;
4.       Demands that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, fully implement the provisions of the 2 October 2013 Statement by the President of the Security Council (S/PRST/2013/15) including through facilitating the expansion of humanitarian relief operations, in accordance with applicable provisions of international humanitarian law and the UN guiding principles of humanitarian emergency assistance;
5.       Calls upon all parties to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas, including in the Old City of Homs (Homs), Nubl and Zahra (Aleppo), Madamiyet Elsham (Rural Damascus), Yarmouk (Damascus), Eastern Ghouta (Rural Damascus), Darayya (Rural Damascus) and other locations, and demands that all parties allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable to their survival, and enable the rapid, safe and unhindered evacuation of all civilians who wish to leave, and underscores the need for the parties to agree on humanitarian pauses, days of tranquility, localized cease-fires and truces to allow humanitarian agencies safe and unhindered access to all affected areas in Syria, recalling that starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited by international humanitarian law;
6.       Demands that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and across borders, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches people in need through the most direct routes;
7.       Urges all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, to take all appropriate steps to facilitate the efforts of the United Nations, its specialized agencies, and all humanitarian actors engaged in humanitarian relief activities, to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to the affected people in Syria, including by promptly facilitating safe and unhindered humanitarian access to populations in need of assistance in all areas under their control, and encourages further cooperation between the United Nations, its specialized agencies and all parties concerned, including Syrian civil society organizations, to facilitate access and the delivery of assistance in the entirety of the Syrian territory;
8.       Demands that all parties respect the principle of medical neutrality and facilitate free passage to all areas for medical personnel, equipment, transport and supplies, including surgical items, and recalls that under international humanitarian law, the wounded and sick must receive, to the fullest extent practicable, and with the least possible delay, medical care and attention required by their condition and that medical and humanitarian personnel, facilities and transport must be respected and protected, and expresses grave concern in this regard at the removal of medical supplies from humanitarian shipments;
9.       Also demands that all parties take all appropriate steps to protect civilians, including members of ethnic, religious and confessional communities, and stresses that, in this regard, the primary responsibility to protect its population lies with the Syrian authorities;
10.     Further demands that all parties demilitarize medical facilities, schools and other civilian facilities and avoid establishing military positions in populated areas and desist from attacks directed against civilian objects;
11.     Strongly condemns the arbitrary detention and torture of civilians in Syria, notably in prisons and detention facilities, as well as the kidnappings, abductions and forced disappearances, and demands the immediate end of these practices and the release of all arbitrarily detained persons starting with women and children, as well as sick, wounded and elderly people and including UN personnel and journalists;
12.     Urges all parties to take all appropriate steps to ensure the safety and security of United Nations personnel, those of its specialized agencies, and all other personnel engaged in humanitarian relief activities, without prejudice to their freedom of movement and access, stresses that the primary responsibility in this regard lies with the Syrian authorities and further stresses the need not to impede these efforts;
13.     Stresses the need to end impunity for violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of human rights, and reaffirms that those who have committed or are otherwise responsible for such violations and abuses in Syria must be brought to justice;
14.     Strongly condemns the increased terrorist attacks resulting in numerous casualties and destruction carried out by organizations and individuals associated with Al-Qaeda, its affiliates and other terrorist groups, urges the opposition groups to maintain their rejection of these organizations and individuals which are responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law in opposition-held areas, calls upon the Syrian authorities and opposition groups to commit to combating and defeating organizations and individuals associated with Al-Qaeda, its affiliates and other terrorist groups, demands that all foreign fighters immediately withdraw from Syria, and reaffirms that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security, and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed;
15.     Emphasizes that the humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate in the absence of a political solution, welcomes in this regard the Geneva Conference on Syria launched in Montreux on 22 January 2014, and demands that all parties work towards the comprehensive implementation of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012 leading to a genuine political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and enables them independently and democratically to determine their own future, and further stresses that rapid progress on a political solution should include full participation by all groups and segments of Syrian society, including women, and represents the only sustainable opportunity to resolve the situation in Syria peacefully, and that the implementation of this resolution is key to meeting the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people;
16.     Urges all Member States to contribute or increase their support to the United Nations’ humanitarian appeals to meet the spiraling needs of people affected by the crisis, and to provide this support in coordination with the relevant United Nations agencies, and to ensure that all pledges are honored in full, and further urges all Member States, based on burden sharing principles, to support the neighboring host countries to enable them to respond to the growing humanitarian needs, including by providing direct support;
17.     Requests the Secretary-General to report to the Council on the implementation of this resolution by all parties in Syria, in particular paragraphs 2 through 12, in 30 days of its adoption and every 30 days thereafter, and upon receipt of the Secretary-General’s report, expresses its intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance with this resolution;
18.     Decides to remain actively seized of the matter.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Rolling Stones rock Abu Dhabi

The magic begins. The Rolling Stones start the concert on time

Wow! I still can’t get around to saying anything else!
And I was there!!!
“There” is of course the kickoff, right here in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, to the legendary Rolling Stones’ 14 On Fire tour.
It was a dream come true to see these legends live, thanks to the friendship and generosity of my friend Kamal, who got me the ticket as a Christmas present.
I was really, really there!
And I got upgraded to Fire Pit, meters away from the stage
I was also lucky to go to the concert with a great group of friends -- thejamjar owners Hetal and Neel as well as Michal and Preety. And to top it all, we were upgraded to the Fire Pit, right in front of the stage. It couldn’t get any better.
After arriving at the fantastic du Arena on Yas Island for early entry at sunset, we entered the Pit, got comfortable and braced for a long wait. But no… Although they are among the biggest stars in music, they not only started on time, but about 10 minutes before 9 p.m.

As Mich Jageer led the band on stage, I had tears in my eyes. I couldn’t believe they were actually right there, a few meters from me. I am sure everyone else had the same feeling.
Some of the 30,000 fans who attended the memorable concert had come from all over the world. There was one father and his son from Scotland, the American couple on their 28th concert and the Danish couple attending their 48th.

Two men behind me knew every single word of every single song. At one point it was difficult to tell if it was them singing or Mick Jagger. I guess there are always spoilers. They also took the excitement out of the surprise of the next song as they knew the song list by heart and announced it each time.
Although I was there to mainly see Ronnie Wood strum that guitar in the flesh, Mich Jagger is absolute magic and charisma; Keith Richards, well you have to see to believe; Charlie Watts did have a few smiles. And Mich Taylor, Chuck Leavell, Bobby Keys and Lisa Fischer just added fairy dust to the magic.
Ronnie Wood
Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards
The band gave their all for nearly two hours. Mick was relentless, running up and down the 40-meter runway into the crowd and even got Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards to join him at one point. He dazzled in super sequined red, green and purple sequined jackets over his Rick Owens black top. He ended with a red-feathered coat.
A relentless Mick Jagger...
... kept running up and down the 40-meter runway into the crowd
The energy among the band members only comes from a partnership of years. And it was refreshing to see Ronnie and Keith smoking on stage without all the politically correct mumbo jumbo.
They kicked off with, Start Me Up and wooed us with It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It), Angie, Paint It Black and Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

There was also: You Got Me Rocking, Tumbling Dice, Emotional Rescue, Doom And Gloom, Honky Tonk Women, Band Introductions, Midnight Rambler, Miss You and Gimme Shelter which UAE fans voted as their favorite song and requested on Social Media platforms.
Keith Richards: "I'm happy anywhere"
Keith Richards sang Slipping Away and Before They Make Me Run, telling the crowd, “I’m happy to be here,” and adding: “I’m happy to be anywhere.”
But above all, it was the music that was absolute magic. Every guitar strum, every drumbeat, every key, every sound was pure rock’n’roll and pure gold.

We were treated to two encores, The first with Sympathy For The Devil and Brown Sugar. The second with You Can’t Always Get What You Want (with the UAE’s Al Khubairat singers) and to top the night (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
But satisfied we all were. (You can see more pictures here.)
If any fans in Japan, Macau, Shanghai, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand -- where the “boys” take the 14 On Fire tour next -- are in any doubt about getting tickets, do it! You won’t regret it.

Thank you Mick, Ronnie, Keith and Charlie for the music and the magic. Keep rocking…

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Feast of Syria war kids’ stories

Christmas is a few days or hours away, and my thoughts somehow keep going back to the more than 1.1 million Syrian children refugees.
The magic of Christmas lives on in children. But so many will not have the opportunity to enjoy it and will miss out on its boots, branded toys, traditional games, decorations, cards, and more.
That is why I was deeply touched when I came across this piece, posted on December 17, by blogger Maysaloon on the experience with Syrian refugee children and their stories in Reyhanli, a town and district of Hatay Province, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, a stone’s throw away from Syria.
* * * * *
On Sunday I sat down in Hatay airport feeling tired. The weather conditions were abysmal and I wasn't looking forward to the next forty eight hours of travel before I got home. Then I rummaged through my satchel and found a folded piece of paper. A little girl called Rime had given it to me two days earlier, and I had put it in my pocket without reading it. I figured I had the time now, so I took it out and unfolded it carefully.
As I read her neat handwriting, with hearts and little flowers drawn upon it, I felt myself choking up and my face lit up with a bright smile. It was a story about a bee and a sheep and a turtle and how they all decide to go together for a picnic and play beneath a tree in a magical castle and when they were all done they got back home and went to sleep.
This last week I was volunteering with the Karam Foundation to help cheer up Syrian children at the Salam school in Reyhanli. I was running a journal writing workshop and also helping out with a storytelling workshop, and one of the things that I was constantly telling the children was that stories needed a "secret" password before being told, otherwise they wouldn't be nice, like tea that had gone cold.
The children would remind me when I pretended to forget, and they would chant out the words "Kan ya Ma Kan Fi Qadeem al Zaman" -- "It was or it was not, in a time long ago" before each recital.
At the end of every story we would end with the cutesy "Hilweh wala fatfouteh?" (Is it nice or is it not?) phrase. I must have told a thousand stories before the week was through, and the children were mesmerized by each one. It was as if something magical happened when a story was being told, and we were all engaged in something old and familiar.
I told stories of a magical giant who helped a little girl find her way back home, of a hunter who rescued a boy lost in the woods, and of how the boy helped his father reclaim his land from a thief.
There were stories of turtles travelling to the pyramids and of a little beetle that helped people to finally drink from a magical fountain of happiness that was protected by a mean caretaker.
In the diary writing workshops I asked the children to write twenty lines about the worst day in their lives, and another twenty about the best day. Anybody who reached twenty lines for the best day of their lives got to pick a special sticker to keep in their notebooks. It was just a sticker, but when they were finally given the opportunity to pick one their eyes would light up in glee and they wouldn't know which one to pick. They would take what seemed like ages to choose which one they wanted. I don't know how it happened, or when exactly, but I fell in love with each of those children and was able to tell their personalities apart even in the short time we had available.

One seven-year-old girl drew me a pretty picture with patterns and a large heart. Written in the heart were the words, "Baba". The cynic in me would have smirked, but after reading what some of these children had written about their lives, or what they had told me over the past days, I almost cried. How could I possibly be a Baba figure to anybody? But for those short days I was.
I remember one boy who looked just like a writer, whatever that may look like. I saw him pick up his pen and stare at the page as I asked him to write about the worst day of his life. He paused as if to think about it, sighed as if he had pulled it up from deep within himself, and then began writing. He then wrote on and on and on. He also wrote over thirty lines for the happiest day of his life, and so did many other boys and girls.
They all whistled when they heard me ask for a mammoth twenty lines, but when they started, many of them went far beyond that. In fact, I had trouble stopping them writing. Some of them even let me read the entries, on condition that I don't read it aloud to the other children. It was a privilege for me to have looked into their memories. They were all good kids, beautiful kids.
One girl who wore a red scarf and matching woolly cap was a know it all and quickly became my very own teacher's pet. She fussed and tsk'ed when she saw me write the date on the board. She said "Sir, I can tell you don't know Arabic. That's not the way we write the date on the board." Then she got up and wrote it on the whiteboard in her very best handwriting. I asked her what her name was and she told me. I told her that that was the name of somebody very dear to me, to which she straightened up in her seat and replied almost instantly with an answer that was the very best that Syrian polite society had to offer. It was all I could do not to burst out in laughter in front of the class.
The next day I saw her running around madly with paint on her cheeks and fingers as she helped the artists in our groups paint the new mural on the school wall, full of life and mischief.
There were countless children throughout the week. There was the young boy Hassan who wanted me to play with his new ball in the playground on our last day, there was young Aisha who let me sit next to her in a class whilst one of my colleagues taught them about photography. She told me all about her family and of how her father was a vet and of how she loves all kinds of animals except cats. She told me she wasn't afraid when the volunteer dentists pulled out one of her teeth and that she had been brave, and I believe her. In spite of everything they had been through, these children had found a way to remain cheery, alive and curious about life.
I do love them all dearly. But there were also moments of sadness. Like when I met an eleven-year-old boy who didn't know how to read. I have never met someone who can't read, and I stood there stunned for a moment as my mind raced through ways that I could help him in the one hour I was spending in his class. There were none, so I asked him to draw the best and worst days of his life. He drew pictures of the planes that Assad had sent to bomb his village.
One boy told me how he had locked himself in his room for three days when his cousin was killed as he fought for the Free Syrian Army -- I asked him to write about that.
Another boy told me his father had been killed, and that that day was the saddest day in his life -- he went on to write about that too.
One girl spoke of how her brother had been captured by the regime, and of what they had done to him.
Everybody had a story to tell me.
And in spite of that they all retained the greatest of warmth and hospitality. They constantly offered me sweets and biscuits after our classes.
For one boy, the best day in his life was when his friends came to visit him on the Eid and his mother had cooked his favorite dishes. They then had tea and he was given 100 liras to go and buy chocolates and biscuits from his uncle's corner shop. I told him to write that down too and he got one of the stickers for his efforts.
So much more was seen and done in this week, of which I will be writing, but as I sat there in that busy airport with the world walking by, I thought of a pretty little girl with a pink woolly cap who had gone home after my storytelling workshop to write me a story in her best handwriting albeit with spelling and grammar mistakes.
She even remembered the magic words and when I reached the end of the story she asked me "Hilwe wala fatfouteh?"
I paused for a moment and mouthed my reply back to her silently.