“Light upon light” (Quran 24:35).
These three words best describe the layers of conquering fear… spreading joy… and embracing refugee orphan children… to define our Givelight community.
Teaching English to Syrian refugee and orphan children in Turkey over zoom represents my most meaningful endeavor upon joining the Givelight mission some years ago during high school. Our weekly classes unraveled my students’ layered experiences from the trauma of war to the hope for stability, highlighting unique journeys to reclaim lost dreams and identities. This perseverance inspired me to work together to create the book, “Unsilenced: Voices of Children Refugees,” a platform to share their resilient stories from their perspectives.
Journey to Givelight in Turkey (June 1, 2023)
During my college summer break, my family and I felt incredibly grateful to travel and meet many of these Givelight students in Turkey with the Givelight coordinator’s help. After years of Zoom teaching from the United States, I led our first in-person class in Istanbul!
I have come to Turkey for this… to meet the children whose innocent stories spread light. Welcomed by the warmest smiles and hugs as I enter a brightly lit classroom, finally interacting with my Givelight children seems surreal.
Eager to practice their English, the students take turns saying their names, age, and favorite activities in Turkey. We bond over our love for the beautiful mosques and beaches in this land. Imagining these children only as refugees of war, one might expect to meet overly mature individuals defined by singular experiences. On the contrary: some little boys gush over soccer, while other young girls share dreams of becoming fashion designers and artists. In fact, my 5th grade student blinded by the trauma of war wears the biggest smile throughout our visit, personifying the meaning of Giving Light to outshine darkness. He believes his sight will return one day against all diagnoses. This center is full of hope.
Ready for our in-person interactive English class, I prepare little surprises along the way.
I hand my students packages wrapped in polkadot print.
“The first person to correctly guess the item inside will open the wrapper first …” I announce as they examine their presents curiously.
Excitedly, the kids call out an Arabic word “… But in English” I tease.
Finally after many attempts, we practice repeating the word “lamp” on the whiteboard as theyardently open their gifts, admiring each others’ unique magic lamp colors. My blind student, too, appreciates the lamp delicately with his hands. They take turns repeating each color in English after me (although sometimes eagerly before me) – a typical practice during our online English classes.
Once they safeguard their magic lamps, we play rock, paper, scissors in English to win the next little gift, colorful ceramic bowls.
“Do we know the rules?” I ask, motioning my sister to help me demonstrate the game. Watching us, their giggles convey that they already know a local version. I remind them however, for this competition, they must practice their English.
As a few stumble on the difficult pronunciation of “scissors,” others help their peers, each excited to win a prize. Playing in-person games with my students during our English class exposes energetic facets of their personalities, far more engaging than the “Brady Bunch screens” on Zoom.
Remembering my own favorite game as a young student, I also teach them a version of “heads-up, seven-up” to earn boxes of Turkish delight. Everyone shuffles around the room, relaxing and laughing together, creating the perfect stage to share our stories.
I finally distribute the much anticipated copies of “Unsilenced: Voices of Children Refugees” to my students. Their bodies fill with a dewy energy as they clutch their personal books after a year of waiting… a year of asking each week when I would bring them our book in-person. “Thank you! Where’s my story?” One child eagerly inquires. “You must find it,” I prod with a smile to the class.
As Syrian refugee children, many still have vulnerable family members in Syria, requiring me to conceal my students’ real names in the book. Instead, I chose names that reflect a core part of my students’ personas. Accepting my challenge to identify themselves, they eagerly flip through pages, searching for the pen-names above their personal narrative.
Their faces beaming, one by one, they ask me to sign their copies. I inscribe a dedication to each student’s real name alongside the pen-name like medals commemorating “Ameed the Leader” or “Jehaan the Creative”… qualities showcasing their resilience in hardship and courage in sharing their stories.
Taking final pictures and giving the children Eidi (a traditional monetary gift in celebration of the upcoming Eid holiday), I realize how in just the span of two hours, their demeanor has evolved from a nervous excitement to a feeling of family. After saying goodbye to my last student, I ask my parents and sister if we might walk to a nearby masjid. At the Fatih mosque, we pray silently, reflecting on an in-person promise delivered, a class full of hope, and a book of first-hand accounts that will continue spreading light. My students encapsulate what the Givelight community means to me: A chosen family… one that builds strength by embracing all refugee and orphan children as our own.
– Summer Qureshi