The Syrian Refugee Boy Who Started School For Refugees When He Was 12
Exactly a year ago, at 16 years old Mohamad Al Jounde from Syria won the International Children’s Peace Prize, an initiative of KidsRights, the foundation committed to defending children’s rights worldwide. In the Hall of Knights in The Hague Mohamad received the award for his tireless efforts to ensure the rights of Syrian refugee children. Mohamad, himself a refugee as a consequence of the Syrian civil war, has amongst other things built a school in a Lebanese refugee camp.
Courtesy of KidsRights.org
Mohamad, grew up in Syria, but fled for Lebanon when life became too dangerous at home. Like thousands of other refugee children in the country, he couldn’t go to school, so he set out to make a difference for children in the same situation. Together with his family, Mohamad built a school in a refugee camp where 200 children now access their right to an education. At the age of 12, he already was teaching math and photography. He helps children to heal, learn and have fun with games and photography. Mohamad is a natural storyteller, raising awareness about the challenges facing refugee children by bringing their stories to a wider audience.
Having to flee from Syria
“In Syria, we had a normal life”, says Mohamad, “both my dad and my mom had jobs, we bought a house and a car, and a different shop for my father. My focus was on school and friends, and having fun all the time. So, life was good. One day I was with my family at home, and it was the first bombing in my hometown, we heard people yelling from neighboring buildings. I felt this was what war means.”
Mohamad’s parents, active in the Syrian revolution, brought him up to be politically aware. That whay when he was 12, Mohamad’s home town saw the arrival of refugees from war-torn Homs and Hama, he was moved to help the children that had left everything behind. Mohamad took part in a workshop about helping children traumatized by war by offering them psychosocial support through friendly play.
Not long after, Mohamad became a refugee himself. His mother was arrested and detained twice. “The same people that arrested my mother sent her a message that she had two choices, either she stays and get killed, or to leave Syria. We knew they were going to kill my mother, and we had to flee Syria and leave everything”, he says.
From Lebanon to Sweden
After a long journey they arrived in Aley, near Beirut in Lebanon. They couldn’t find work in Lebanon, so Mohamad’s father, fleeing by boat via Greece, sought asylum in Sweden. Back in Lebanon, Mohamad, his sister and mother struggled with poverty, but they never lost their will to help others more desperate than themselves. “Again, I lost something precious in my life. I first lost my home, my friends, my life, and then I lost my father… my life with him. So things started to disappear, one by one.” Family reunification was recently granted by Sweden, three years after Mohamad last saw his father.
Building a school, building a future
For his first two years in Lebanon, Mohamad couldn’t go to school. It was a struggle, but rather than defeat him, it fueled his will to fight for a better future, for himself and for his peers. “Being a refugee child in a different country is difficult. Because you’re starting your whole life from zero. So, you don’t have friends, you don’t have a school, you don’t have a home, you have nothing.” Together with his family, Mohamad started a school for Syrian children in a refugee camp. He built it with his own hands and at the age of 12, he was teaching math and photography.
Now the school was rebuilt professionally, and staffed with formal teachers. It now teaches 200 children, who after completing two years can move on to the formal Lebanese school system. Mohamad believed from an early age that kids have every rights to get educated: “To me every child has the right to learn, the right to go to school and be educated. This is what I’m fighting for. For kids to go to school and get educated.”
A picture says more than a thousand words
Mohamad draws on his biggest passions, photography and film making, to tell the stories of his fellow refugee children in all their diversity. He teaches photography, and encourages children to take photos of their daily lives. Drawing on his earlier training and on his own experiences, Mohamad encourages them to express themselves and to process their trauma. “Children are hiding their stories inside,” he says. “It takes trust to get them out.” Living in the here and now can be a great help. The refugee children who Mohamad works with harbor painful memories of war, they miss family members, their friends and hobbies, and are afraid to start all over again. Mohamad creates opportunities for them to interact with other children from both Syria and Lebanon. “There are many refugee kids that are too shy to talk, but not too shy to take a picture. A picture can say a thousand words, a picture of hope and happiness.”
“28 million children have been misplaced just like me, half of the refugee kids between 6 and 14 can’t go to school. This is crazy. This has to change, and I want to make it change. Today I stand up for myself and for all of those kids, I will fight for the rights of those kids. I will try to be their voice, and their hope. Because every child has the right to education, to dream big and to enjoy life.” -Mohamad Al Jounde
With your help, KidsRights will empower Mohamad as a global changemaker for the rights of refugee children. https://kidsrights.org/mohamad-al-jounde#donate
“It was the first bombing in my hometown, we heard people yelling from neighboring buildings. I felt this was what war means.”
“We knew they were going to kill my mother, and we had to flee Syria and leave everything”
“28 million children have been misplaced just like me, half of the refugee kids between 6 and 14 can’t go to school. This is crazy. This has to change…”
“There are many refugee kids that are too shy to talk, but not too shy to take a picture. A picture can say a thousand words, a picture of hope and happiness.”