A Girl I Hope to Never See: Life for a Syrian Refugee

Katerina Ilievska in collaboration with Jovana Todorova
SOS Children’s Villages

“It’s 9 a.m.,” I confidently say without looking at the time. I know because Rasha just walked in. For the past seven months, every day in this Syrian girl’s life has been exactly like this October day.

Rasha is 10 years old. With her family, she has been stranded in a refugee transit camp since the borders on the Balkan route toward Western Europe closed for refugees.

Behind Rasha is a life in Syria that was filled with terror. Behind Rasha is the trauma of fleeing her home with nothing but the clothes she was wearing that day. Behind Rasha is the difficult journey in an overcrowded dinghy across the tumultuous Aegean Sea, which claimed thousands of lives.

Rasha and her family got to the Balkans full of hope for starting a new life in the safety of Western Europe. Yet the border closure found them two borders and few days shy of reaching their destination. Now, Rasha’s “normal” is not a typical 10-year-old girl’s normal. This is how her normal looks like.

Twisted Childhood

On this cloudy October morning, Rasha is, as usual, the first to enter our Child Friendly Space—a program of SOS Children’s Villages where refugee children attend educational and creative activities. I know Rasha woke up before her parents and siblings, just like every day over the past seven months. She dressed, put on her backpack containing a single notebook and a few pencils, and then went to wash her face and comb her hair.

Rasha sits at a table in the corner—always the same table, although she can sit anywhere—and smiles at me. I’m here at this morning hour only twice a week, but I know the same smile from the same corner has also welcomed my colleagues day after day for seven months.

 Rasha's coloring page of a princess. Part of the image, upper left corner of the drawing, was changed for privacy reasons.

Rasha's coloring page of a princess. Part of the image, upper left corner of the drawing, was changed for privacy reasons.

Today, I offer Rasha a coloring page featuring a pre-drawn princess. She accepts it with a smile and takes time picking out coloring pencils. She never colors outside the lines and puts significant thought into matching colors.

For a reason only she knows, Rasha chose me as the one adult person to hug every time she sees me. It’s a warm, albeit short, hug. She usually sticks her head under my arm and breaks away the moment I land a loud kiss on her hair. She avoids such physical contact with other adults. With her back arched high and immediate body withdrawal even at a hint of an approach, Rasha seems to be setting a strict personal boundary with all other adults.

Fitting in . . . the Solace

I find Rasha to be a neat, tidy child, always taking care with her appearance and keeping her things in order. Back in Syria, she had repeated the 2nd grade due to what her parents referred to as an intellectual impediment.

Rasha seems happiest in the mornings when all the other children from the refugee center are still asleep and the Child Friendly Space is empty. Other children Rasha’s age and older avoid her. She seems to appreciate the isolation. In the rare moments she socializes with other children, it is always with the younger ones.

Later that morning, the educational classes start. Rasha attends math first. It’s basic math, designed for children at the 1st-grade level. Rasha seems happy to do addition. She takes time before giving her answers.

When she sees that the teacher gave her the highest grade, Rasha smiles. She did the same equations at least five times. She has had trouble with subtraction and multiplication, and so had stayed in the same level class. She doesn’t seem to mind.

In Arabic language class, the teacher asks the children to write the letters. Rasha is quicker this time. She knows all the Arabic letters very well, but writes them down nonetheless. She gets another highest grade, which prompts another of her wide smiles and quiet giggles.

After classes, Rasha goes back to her family to eat lunch.

Belonging . . . on the Outskirts

Rasha comes back to the Child Friendly Space after 3 p.m., wearing the same wide smile. I think she appreciates me sitting next to her while she makes paper figures. I've witnessed her coloring some of the most beautiful mandalas I’ve ever seen. I find her paper butterflies and doll dresses amazing as well.

Today, she surprises me. She pulls out an invitation for the children’s show in the first big tent. The big tent is one of the Rubb Halls—a huge common area, typical in refugee transit centers.

The refugee children had created a show in which they imitated my Arabic language interpreter colleagues. I accompany Rasha to the show, where we sit on the side. I am so taken with the children’s view of my interpreter colleagues that I forget for a moment to pay attention to Rasha. But amid the other children screaming with joy and the parents and other adults laughing loudly, Rasha looks to be happy to be a part of something, even as an observer.

Later, Rasha tells me, through interpretation, that she wanted to take part, but the older children said she couldn’t. I’m on the verge of tears. Still, I force a smile.

A Sleepover, Before Bedtime

 Rasha with her teddy bear. Part of the image, country name in background logo, was changed for privacy reasons.

Rasha with her teddy bear. Part of the image, country name in background logo, was changed for privacy reasons.

Around 8 p.m., back in the Child Friendly Space, Rasha throws a modest birthday party for Alla—her teddy bear. The toy was donated by an American child. Rasha gave the bear a birthdate and a name.

Four toddlers from the refugee center attend the party. Rasha puts Alla on a cupboard and covers her with a blanket. She then turns to the children, who all want to imitate the teddy. Rasha indulges their wish, covering each child carefully with a blanket—all the while wearing her signature wide smile.

Shortly before 9 p.m., my interpreter colleague asks Rasha how she feels about tomorrow’s field trip. Tomorrow, for the first time in seven months, Rasha will leave the refugee center for few hours to visit the local zoo a mere 50 kilometers away. Rasha stops and swiftly cuts Alla’s birthday party short.

At 9 p.m., an hour earlier than her usual stay in the Child Friendly Space, Rasha sees off all the children, packs up her things, hugs me good-night, and goes back to her family.

Upside-Down Childhood

Being a refugee child is tough. You have to accept the abnormal as your normal.

The morning hygiene routine is done in reverse. You wake up in your “home”—a simple container unit with only bunk beds and harsh grey blankets. You dress, get your things, and then you go to the bathroom.

The bathroom is another container unit about 100 meters away accessible via an open-air gravel path. You wash with cold water and comb your hair without a mirror.

If donations are available, you get a change of clothes. Otherwise, you put on your old clothes. Some days, you have to wait in your container home until your single change of clothes, which your mom hand-washed with cold water the night before, dries.

Your meals are distributed per family with coupons your family acquired only the day before. You don’t get to say what you want to eat. It’s decided for you by people who don’t know you.

Your parents don’t take you to school or to activities. You walk alone inside a fenced compound to a semblance of a school in a semblance of a classroom, taught by teachers whose only qualification is that they speak your native language.

You spend the rest of your time with people like me who desperately try to give you some experiences of a normal childhood.

A Loving Home for Every Child

When you are a refugee child, everything—food, clothes, shoes, knowledge, games—everything you have is chosen by people who don’t know you.

When you are a refugee child, your life is organized inside a fenced and guarded compound, which you can leave only if someone spent weeks getting permissions to take you to the zoo.

When you are a refugee child, your parents are marginal, not by choice, but by circumstance.

I often meet Rasha’s mom. She speaks a few words of English and we exchange pleasantries. She seems thankful for the joy Rasha finds in the Child Friendly Space. I meet her dad as well. He comes over and looks at his daughter through the window, seeming reluctant to interrupt the fun is having. Whenever I see his mellow, fatherly, loving glance, I make up an excuse to go to our little storage room and cry my eyes out.

I love being part of Rasha’s life. I love her short hugs and quiet giggles. I love and feel honored that she let me be part of her childhood. But...

I hope the borders open. I hope Rasha gets to have a regular childhood—full of freedom and choices and mischief, like I had. And I hope that soon I will not be a part of this girl’s life. I will miss her very much, but she deserves the normal childhood I, and you, once had.

For privacy reasons, the name of the child is changed and the location is withheld.