Kinda Hibrawi creating positive memories for refugee kids

Many young Syrians have lost everything: their home, their normal life, their friends and often even family members. Their memories of screams, gunshots and bombs exploding are stored deep down. A lot of these children and young people are seriously traumatized. Experts already speak of a "lost generation". But Kinda Hibrawi doesn't want to give up on this generation. The US artist has Syrian roots herself. As the education Director of Karam Foundation she organizes camps for Syrian refugee children. She wants to inspire them with art and photography, creative writing, painting and sports. In an interview she tells us what she wants to accomplish over the long term with her "Zeitouna" project.

Human Dignity Forum: How did you come up with the idea of starting Zeitouna?

Kinda Hibrawi: I had always worked with children and art programs. I had been a volunteer for three years in the cancer ward of the Children’s Hospital of Orange County in California, doing bedside art projects with the kids. I recognized then first-hand the positive effect art has on children’s overall mental/emotional well being. But truly the idea came from my own experience with a mentor when I was 5 years old. My babysitter at the time, Sandra, would read me bedtime stories at night and the next morning leave a picture from one of the scenes of the book. I was fascinated. This was my first introduction to the world of art. I remember thinking I wanted to be just like Sandra when I grew up…. and I did just that. So I figured, if we could inspire refugee kids this same way and introduce them to mentors from around the world, imagine what could happen from this experience? Ultimately, Zeitouna is about creating positive memories for refugee kids that have suffered great emotional trauma.

When and where was the first Zeitouna program? How did the children respond to it?

The first Zeitouna program took place in Atmeh, Syria. We were working in the largest displaced camp along the Syrian-Turkish border. It was a tent city, 30,000 people and 12,000 children. The conditions were very challenging and it was emotionally draining to witness this tragedy at first hand. Our team of 7 mentors worked with 500 children at the school, grades 1 – 6. It is still difficult for me to think of those times… the kids of Atmeh haunt me the most… Because I feel we have abandoned them, I can’t go back into Syria to see them and find out how they are doing or what has happened to them. Their “ghosts” are always with me.

(Note: The first Zeitouna program was in Syria. Hibrawi and the mentors drove over the border every day to work with the Syrian children. That is not possible anymore. The situation in Syria has become so bad that it is too dangerous to cross the border into the crisis zone.)

Were there any difficulties in organizing Zeitouna?

It’s always a challenge when you are organizing 40 people from around the world in a conflict zone twice a year. We start preparations for each mission 3 months in advance for a two-week trip. The entire program is 5 days. But recruiting the right team is the key. There is an application process to join the mission or you need to be recommended by someone. It’s my responsibility to make sure the kids are being introduced not just to talented people but to individuals who are there for the right reasons. It’s a life-changing experience not just for the kids, but for the mentors as well. I always tell them at orientation that by the end of this week, each of you will be a different person.

Which plans do you have for the future of the Zeitouna program?

The program has expanded but the need is still getting ever greater. We are currently looking to build a Karam Foundation Center for Syrian refugee children on the border. This way we will reach more children and create a “safe zone” for them. The center’s purpose is to create strong leaders that will someday go back to Syria and rebuild it anew.

Photo: Kinda Hibrawi.

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  1. Najwa rifai

    This great work can not be done except by great people whe feels the suffering of Syrians thank you Kinda you are the one puting your art to serve such a noble work being one of my relatives I m really proud of you God bless you and those who are working with in such a great work

  2. Tasnim Alkassem

    such efforts done by such genuine people, who understand the psychology of chidhood special in time of wars and injustices, could achieve noble goals and allow transformations into better beings to happen.

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