“You keep.” Imploring brown eyes stared up into mine. Sparkling with childlike wonder, they yet seemed aged beyond his few years.
His arm was extended, stretching upwards, elbow hyper-extended by a degree or two. Fingertips clutching a rectangle of dusky-rose construction paper. So eager, he was practically on tippy-toes. His body resembled the position this gifted little goalkeeper often assumed out on the schoolyard pitch to deflect screaming footballs from plunging into his team’s net.
Except here in the classroom, his hand is now upturned and giving, rather than blocking and protecting.
“What’s this, Asim?” I inquired with my brightest smile.
“You keep. For you.”
I slowed from my rushing about the chaotic classroom. It was a sweet gesture to be sure. From a loving, though withdrawn and quiet boy. I wondered what had sparked him to muster the courage to approach me like this. I’d never seen him initiate conversation. Getting him to respond in class was like cracking code.
“Why thank you! Is it your drawing?”
He shook his head with a show of force, an almost stern look seizing his face. He bit his lower lip. One of his front teeth that had chipped during some commotion back in Syria was suddenly on rare display.
After music time, the children had turned to crafts. Always a highlight of our mornings, the kids concocted caterpillars from egg cartons and pipe cleaners, and twirling mobiles from bits of string and cut up plastic bottles and straws.
On the days googly-eyes were in supply, the preschoolers resolutely transformed brown lunch bags into a range of puppets, with lives and personalities all their own. Vibrant streaks of crayon made funny mouths – all orange and green and red. Cotton balls served as furry eyebrows and moustaches. Generous gobs of glue affixed sparse, colourful strands of yarn for hair. All topped off with clumpy mounds of sparkles, gold and silver, that dazzled the frazzled creatures and lit up the students’ sometimes darkened worlds.
Today, using paint, markers, popsicle sticks, or clippings from magazines, they were simply asked to storm a sheet of construction paper with a depiction of their dreams.
“Hmmm…Not a drawing? Well, you’ve got me curious, Asim! Whatever clever creation did you make today?”
“For you!” His eyes kept a lock on mine, even as his chin was lowered to his chest and the broken tooth slipped from view.
“How nic…” Before I could finish he turned and scampered to the corner of the classroom closest the door. He flopped to his bottom, sitting on the floor as he fiddled with his left shoe.
Apparently three spartan words — “for,” “you,” and “keep,” — in differently sequenced spurts were all that were on offer this day. Yet they hit their mark. Rare as they were, I accepted them like a newly unearthed Shakespearean sonnet.
My attention shifted from his sudden departure, to the piece of paper now drooping from my fingers. From recent months of experience with Asim, I knew about what to expect: a simple stick figure with one special object in the background. Perhaps a house; a bird; a ball; a warplane; or, a tree. The stick figure would be quite small and invariably red. The object, doubtless black and wildly out of proportion. Lurking. Looming. Ominous.
And yet for all the apparent simplicity of his oeuvre, Asim was an evocative young artist. His figures starkly outlined a fearful, little child’s view. Looking up – at sharp angles and close quarters – and poignantly into the staccato of incursions that had violently intruded his little world. The intimate invasions of Syria’s uncivil war.
Like too many others in this camp classroom, rough and relentless experience had left marks that some might call invisible. My exposure to their daily lives led me to see the marks were clearly visible. Discernible. In furtive actions. In evasive movements. In emotions alternately stifled or erupting. And in sentiments left unacknowledged, unsifted, unsaid.
As I lifted the paper to viewing level, I was struck by the extraordinary. By the jarring absence of black and red. I was left confused. Being largely non-verbal, Asim always relished the chance to express himself through art or sport or craft. He always immersed himself, trance-like, until he surfaced with a something meaningful to display.
Yet, there was nothing on it. No subject. No object. Not even a clue.
Sure, there were little markings of contact with reality. It was slightly creased about a third the way from the bottom, as if he started to make a paper airplane, a fighter jet, but quickly ejected. It also bore a slight dirt-smudge of a thumbprint just off the side of the crease – a trace of the nearby playground finding its way inside. And a random few sparkles had taken up temporary residence along the eastern edge, clinging on for dear life by some unseen power.
The upper left corner – barely an inch — had been torn off. A slight indiscretion considering its rough-and-tumble classroom environs, easily resulting from sudden extraction from under a chair leg or classmate’s misplaced elbow. Yet aside from the minor abrasions, smuggled-in sparkles and a dog-eared corner, the front side was completely blank.
Still, the lack of crayon marks in Asim-esque red-and-black perplexed me. Then I finally figured Asim had handed it to me facing his direction. I was looking at the wrong side.
I flipped it over.
A dried spot of glue sat next to a soft divot, where it appeared another clump of paste had been removed. The clawing away of the glue blot had left a furry little trough of paper fibres sticking up — like a handful of miniscule hands waving to answer a question, or asking to go pee.
Still — nothing. No markings to display Asim’s dreams.
My heart sunk. Did the little one have no dreams? No vision of the future? No better world awaiting his arrival? Was he not daring to dream? Was having a dream only tempting fate, taunting it to invade? Beckoning it to steal it away? I didn’t know what to make of it, but my mind raced down a dark path.
Despite scrutiny – and hope — that there must be more, this was simply a stark-naked piece of construction paper, one that had spent perhaps 30 minutes or so separated from its sheave and wrapping. All things considered, it was yet a small miracle to see it relatively unscathed, given the exposure to a preschool classroom craft table swarming with industrious fingers, curious, furious, clumsy and quick.
I looked back up to see Asim, but he’d already fixed his shoelace or plucked out some pebble and skittered on out the door for recess on the playground.
He would play alone, always watching. He wasn’t standoffish. Not in the least. He just found his place near the side of the sandbox, where he perched quietly, drinking in the worlds of those around him.
Being a careful observer, Asim was always finding objects misplaced or abandoned. A little action figure jettisoned from Mohammed’s pocket as he squealed delightedly down the slide. A dinar coin bounced from Lina’s backpack as she rushed to stand close to the principal for the anthem. A bracelet slipping free from Marta flying thrillingly high on the swing. An eraser tumbling off the edge of Siddiq’s desk. Asim always knew to whom each article belonged and was conscientious and quick to ensure a joyful reunion. Always wordless, selfless, and without concern for reward. It was as if he was on special assignment every single day.
Just then, adorable little Maya interrupted my thoughts for help to tie her purple Dora shoes for the third time that day. I hastily affixed Asim’s unfinished art to a filing cabinet facing near where often he liked to sit. It was held in place with a butterfly magnet, where he would be able to see his piece prominently displayed every day.
“So first you cross the lace over…” I was starting to wish Maya’s mom had invested in Velcro.
I didn’t realize it then, as the blood rushed to my head to tie that lace, but that was the last day I would have Asim in my class.
EIGHTEEN MONTHS LATER
A handwritten piece of mail arrived for me in the camp.
Strange. Except for bills and other junk mail, I never get paper post. Certainly nothing personal. And never at the Camp.
It was delivered from an address in Amman, about 95 miles to the west of the refugee camp. It was addressed simply:
Al Azraq Camp,
It strikes my college friends as strange that teaching in Azraq Refugee Camp feels more like home to me now than being back in the city. Though just a daily visitor, receiving mail seemed to make my “home status” official. It was an announcement to the world that this is where I belong. Amongst people who have no permanent place to call home.
Despite its desert setting edging towards the Syrian border, with whipping winds that knock over the soccer nets and ripping sands that irritate my eyes and teeth, topped with a fiercely pulsating sun, it’s a place where I’ve found remarkable gentleness. The children have smuggled it in to the place, with their skipping souls and minds rippling with unbridled curiosity and joy.
Enclosed in the plain, handwritten envelope was a plain white piece of paper, neatly folded in three.
It was not blank. I only wish that it was.
In a child’s handwriting it read:
April 4, 2018
Dear Miss Fatouma, Sorry to write this letter. I am Asim’s big sister, Nadiyaah. Sorry I wirte so not good. I am smart but missed much of school. I am 11-years.
You do not know we come back to Syria last year. We could not stay the camp more longer but people were verry nice. Daddy too much missed mommy who stay back home with grandpa. We all miss home. We thought Saqba was maybe somethings safe.
Asim died few weeks ago. Yes. Sorry. From bomb. He was five-and-half. Daddy think Russia plane. Asim died because he saw to stop piece of metal to fall from onto hurt my head. It cut his shoulder arm bad like big knife. Realy bad. The tunnel doctor help himed. He stopped the bleed much but everything medicine was gone. No more haved. All gone for Asim.
I write to you because Asim. He never stop talking about you. He thinks you funy and kind and smart. He say he want to marry you but then he said no. I think yes. He liked your sing.
He say he gave you special paper last time. It special for you his favourite teacher. Asim said its for yourreally special craft. For your dreames. Whatever you want and like. He said you always gived him and friends paper. But no one give to you like that. He showed my tiny piece same paper. He keep little part so you now from him. So you now his gived you paper forver time.
I have to go now. Sorry you lost from baby brother Asim. He liked you so lots. He want to do music when he grow up because it makes happy like you make his happy in school. Not sing words. Play drum loud. Maybe guitar. No hear bombs more. he play music now I think. Maybe God want him to play heavan because to loud Syria to hear his songes. But when quiet I hear him with my heart. I don’t know if he growes up. I am maked sad.
Oh heres paper piece. It is pink, Asim said your likeist colour. Like ribbon you ware. sorry dirty and little blod Was in Asim’s pocket ever time.In shirt when he died save me. i think loks like littleheart! Bye Dady needs to give unlcl letter who go Jordan now. Thank you for teach Asim music. He have foreverys now.
At the bottom was a little scrap of paper. It was curled, dirty, and looked like it had a coffee stain on most of it. It was the dried shade of Asim’s innocent blood.
The fragment still taped to the letter was no longer pink like Nadiyaah claimed, but it was worn in a peculiar way that it indeed looked like a tiny, fragile heart.
A flame of rage swept through my soul like the desert’s fiercest breath. Consumed something inside. Some edge of innocence torched with fire, burnt right up and was left brittle and black. Like the aftermath of a forest fire.
Tears of rage and sorrow surged, as if to douse the fire, but too late. They spilled down and blotched the letter. One drop fell dead into the centre of Asim’s littleheart.
With the care of a surgeon, I took an Xacto knife and gently lifted the tape that held it in place. Walking over to the cabinet, I reverently lifted the fragment to the torn edge of the construction paper. It no longer fit neatly in its place. The piece did belong. But now it more properly fit in the fresh wound in my heart.
As I lifted my hand to move the magnet, the forgotten knife blade I was still holding slashed along my left wrist. Pretty bad, though nothing dangerous. I wasn’t in Damascus, Homs, or Idlib.
I quickly finished removing the art paper and laid it with the littleheart on my desk.
Fumbling in a drawer, I quickly found the First Aid kit. With a flock of active pre-schoolers, it gets a fair amount of use. With gauze and bandage wrap, I was able to staunch much of the flow. But I noticed I had dripped onto the paper. Quite a lot. I cursed myself.
Then I cursed my God.
Why did God allow this? This senseless war. This tragic loss. This beautiful child with eyes so wide and pure. Little Asim, whose giving heart was always eagerly beating out of his chest for the chance to help others. Who banged his little drum to drown out war. Whose final act was one of purest love. Of protective care of his dear sibling. How cruel, to allow this child to be torn from this world as his outstretched his arm – hyperextended, fingers reaching – acted and offered all with dangerously innocent love?
Whose father’s heart must be crushed.
Whose mother’s anguish finds no bandage to stop the flow of aching, endless loss.
Whose sister writes to be brave and kind, but will live always knowing the cost for her life was his.
“Little one, this act was not my doing” a whisper said. “The metal that struck Asim pierced right through my hands. With them, I’m holding him now. And I’m lifting you.”
Somehow, it seemed that God wasn’t angry with my blame. The whispers into my heart were gentle. They shared my rage. Shared my cup of sorrow. Entered into my loss. And, they overflowed with love.
A FEW DAYS LATER
The blood that spilled onto the page that day…I’ve looked for countless hours, days, for a hidden pattern. A disguised image. A message as yet undisclosed.
But, nothing. Just random streaks and stray drops of splattered blood. Only outlining the incident, not interpreting it. And certainly powerless to heal the sweet little boy or bring him back to life.
Blood marred the page once so bright and pure. The barely-touched canvas of a life cut short by hot metal in cold blood. Parchment offered barely out of its sheaf. A tender gift in, but perhaps to, a hostile world.
I thought about the tree that it took to construct the paper. Cut down to be pressed out so that people could have space to convey our hopes and etch out our dreams.
There is always a cost to give life. Asim’s mother was acutely aware of this when she was torn to offer him into this world. This cost is great. Yet the cost of life taken is incalculable. Asim’s mother is wracked by this reality, having lost him in this world.
Asim had given me a precious gift. It was time to put it to use. On that tree, on this parchment, on Asim’s gift, now bloodstained, I will write a letter. Remembering how he wanted it as the canvas for my dreams.
The letter will be an open one. Addressed not to God, who my heart still whispers is good, caring, just. But to those vying for power — with increasingly horrific means — whom I fear may not be. Calling for an end to Syria’s ceaseless, insane war.
I know they will see little reason to listen to me, a young, female Jordanian preschool teacher. But I know I do not dream alone.
Perhaps they will listen in the dead of night to the blood of our children and the cries of their mothers. The blood of Syria’s children. God’s children. And all of the littlehearts who make us brave.
May their childlike love and raw courage teach us to be great. To learn together in life’s tumultuous classroom. To run freely about the playground. To build dreams together in the sand. To return that which is precious to those from whom it’s been lost. To make art and music and laughter. To remember the things that have meaning only as we share.
From my very heart, a little strip’s been torn for all the Asims. And on it I will write simple words for peace.
It may do little good. Get roughed up. Burned. Broken. Bulleted. Bloodied. Bombed. Buried. But it will show the world where Asim belongs. Where all the children do. Not discarded or disregarded. Not shoveled underneath the dirt of our war machines. Not tossed out of our pockets to be stuffed with gold and green. But in loving arms, held up high, as our brightest dreams. The world’s most beautiful form of sacred art.
So let us hush the guns and the barrel bombs that we might hear the littlehearts laugh, strum, sing and drum.
Let this be our Syrian dream.