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This program lets you learn about the Syrian crisis from someone who lived it

Nov. 24, 2017
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“Hello, salaam. Nice to meet you, Hanan.” Mahmoud suddenly comes into focus on my laptop screen. Bespectacled and donning a solid black V-neck T-shirt, he greets me with a candid, toothy smile. We’ve met on several occasions before this encounter, so I know that what he means to say is, “Nice to see you again, Hanan.” Mahmoud’s learning English as a second language. Still, he expresses himself beautifully. I glean just as much from what he says as I do from the meaning etched in his facial features and body language. Mahmoud’s energy is so palpable, it feels as if he’s across from me in the flesh—when really his location of Reyhanli, Turkey is a long ways from where I live in New Orleans.

Adorning the wall behind Mahmoud are stickers of garden pots and blooming flowers. Words twist in patterns, too, but the blurriness of a weak connection renders me unable to parse them. By the end of our call, I can make one out: “Smile.” Earlier that day, after a dose of news, I lamented that the world made no sense—but this word, capturing Mahmoud’s goodwill and fortitude, makes exquisite sense.

I met Mahmoud through my role on the outreach team of Paper Airplanes, a nonprofit committed to educating and empowering young people affected by conflict. Comprised mostly of high school and college students, the organization pairs English-speaking volunteers with teenagers and adults in the Middle East whose lives have been disrupted by war. Partners meet weekly for at least hour-long Skype sessions.

Eager to improve his English in order to widen his educational and career prospects, Mahmoud Alsteif, from Idlib, Syria, joined the organization ten months ago soon after his nineteenth birthday. For Noor Kamal, a native New Yorker now in her senior year of high school, getting to know Mahmoud through Paper Airplanes has “offered [her] a perspective of the Syrian crisis [she] simply can’t gain by reading an article or watching the news.” Kamal credits his humor and optimism for “carrying [them] through lessons.”

Mahmoud’s childhood was not unlike many of our own. Growing up, he took delight in gorging on books, competing in chess, learning English, playing soccer, and swimming. The worries that plagued Mahmoud as a child, like minor deductions on a test, strike him as absurdly unimportant today, as they dwarf compared to the horrors he experienced beginning in 2011. In March of that year, Syria became ravaged by war—and still is today, making it one of the most pressing humanitarian crises of our time.

Recalling the two years he was stuck in Syria after the war broke out, Mahmoud staunches tears in pronounced pauses. As with other school- and college-aged Syrians, his education came to an abrupt halt. Unable to leave home, he and his family often went days without food, water, and electricity. His recollection of that period hits me hard: “Thirsty, hungry, sad. All we had to do was wait for the time to pass.”

Eventually the ear-splitting noise of barrel bombs, missiles, and rockets became so commonplace that they ceased to grate on his ears (plausibly in connection to noise-induced hearing loss). Almost five years later, one haunting memory continues to revisit him unbidden: Mahmoud had stepped outside just as a missile obliterated a nearby residential building, killing or grossly injuring many of his neighbors and school comrades. “Allah yerhamhum,” he tearfully musters as he recounts the harrowing incident. May they rest in peace.

In 2013, when Mahmoud was just fourteen years old, he and his mother set off on a perilous trek to Turkey. They were followed a few months later by his father and one of his three brothers. The other two remain in Syria; the eldest of them is a doctor working on the front lines to heal in an impossibly challenging environment. Mahmoud’s dream to follow in his footsteps as a physician was thwarted by war and displacement. Today he’s in his third year at a college for refugees on the Turkish-Syrian border training in physical therapy.

Asked if he intends to return to Syria after his studies, Mahmoud answers in the affirmative without a moment’s hesitation. “There are many people who need help in my homeland,” he explains.

Want to get involved? Visit Paper Airplanes’ website for more information.