Handwritten letters from American classrooms lift hopes of schoolchildren in war-torn Syria

“Letters of Hope” was launched in 2016 to counter the claims of Syrian President Bashar Assad the international community had abandoned Syrians. (AN Photo)
“Letters of Hope” was launched in 2016 to counter the claims of Syrian President Bashar Assad the international community had abandoned Syrians. (AN Photo)
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Updated 29 September 2021

Handwritten letters from American classrooms lift hopes of schoolchildren in war-torn Syria

“Letters of Hope” was launched in 2016 to counter the claims of Syrian President Bashar Assad the international community had abandoned Syrians. (AN Photo)
  • Letters for Hope was launched to counter the Assad regime narrative that the world has abandoned the Syrian people
  • Children have suffered the brunt of the war, with UN monitors saying the regime targets civilians indiscriminately

WASHINGTON, D.C.: “Have hope, stay strong, you are loved somewhere.” These are the words of American schoolchildren, handwritten on colorful paper and posted thousands of miles away to boys and girls in Syria’s besieged rebel-held areas.

Hope may seem in short supply in Syria, but thanks to a group of dedicated activists in the US and their humanitarian colleagues in Syria itself, a measure of relief and messages of solidarity are on hand.

The Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a US-based NGO founded in 2011, connects America’s heartland with communities in Syria, while also providing vital humanitarian assistance to the country’s vulnerable children.

“Letters of Hope” was launched in 2016 to counter the claims of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and its international backers that the international community has abandoned the Syrian people.




A boy holds a personal photo print showing children as he stands by rubble in the aftermath of Syrian government forces' bombardment on the town of Balashun in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the south of Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib. (AFP)

The program collects letters of solidarity from young people around the world and sends them directly to displaced Syrian civilians to reassure them they are not alone.

“To take part in the letters of hope mission is more than just a sign of solidarity. It is a movement,” Abby Straessle, SETF’s director of development, told Arab News.

Many of the Syrian children who receive these letters live under regime bombardment. Attacks have recently intensified in Syria’s northwest, already shattered by a Russian and Iranian-backed offensive in March last year.

Children have suffered the brunt of the conflict, which began more than a decade ago when anti-government protests were brutally repressed, sparking a bloody civil war.




One recent batch of hand-decorated cards came from Holy Souls’ pre-kindergarten class in Little Rock, Arkansas in the US. (AN Photo)

The Syrian Civil Defense, a non-governmental organization popularly known as the “White Helmets,” alleges that regime artillery and Russian jets have deliberately targeted schools and deprived children of an education. The Russian government strenuously denies responsibility for such airstrikes.

A recent report from the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic claims that residential areas, markets, and medical facilities have also been deliberately targeted, often indiscriminately.

Syrian children are frequently killed in such attacks on civilian infrastructure. In July, Russian-made Kransnopol guided artillery shells struck a medical facility in the southern countryside of Idlib, killing six children.

According to UNICEF, some 512 children were killed in similar attacks last year, most of them in northwest Syria. Around 1.7 million vulnerable children reside in the rebel-held areas, most of whom have been displaced multiple times by successive regime offensives.

Psychological warfare appears to figure prominently in the regime’s tactical playbook. Leaflets are regularly dropped from the air over rebel-held areas warning residents they “face annihilation” if they do not leave.




A man carries a girl who was injured during aerial bombardment at a make-shift camp for displaced Syrians, along a stairway in a hospital in the atby town of Maaret Misrin in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province. (AFP)

“Everyone has given up on you,” one such leaflet read, referring to the international community. “They left you alone to face your doom.”

Letters of Hope began as a direct challenge to that message, reminding Syrian children they have not been forgotten.

“Letters of Hope shows the people of Syria that even if world governments look away and even if the US administration continues to distance itself from the atrocities unfolding in Syria, the American people and people all over the world stand in solidarity with civilians demanding freedom in war-torn Syria,” Mouaz Moustafa, director of SETF, told Arab News.

Of course, letters alone cannot provide Syrian children with an education, protect them from bombardment, nor ease the pangs of hunger. That is why SETF has a parallel program in northern Syria called Wisdom House, which runs a kindergarten, and a women’s center called Tomorrow’s Dawn.

The center has provided hundreds of women with vocational training, offering professional certificates in cosmetology, nursing, crafts, and computer science.

INNUMBERS

* 13.4 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, the highest since 2017.

* $4.2 billion Syrian Humanitarian Response Plan, which is only 27% funded.

(Source: UN)

“Your beautiful and emotional words enter our hearts and give us hope,” Moumena, an English teacher and principal of Wisdom House, said in response to the letters.

“It means so much for me personally and for the other teachers who take care of the children. When we see the letters that are sent by teachers and students and people who care about us, we feel that we will be safe and there are no doubts that we will be the winners.

“They give us strength, hope, and love. Everyone who sends us these letters has a beautiful, sweet and faithful heart. Again and again, I say thank you from the bottom of our hearts to anyone who stands with us and sends us these beautiful words.

“The first letter I received said: ‘Be strong, you are not alone.’ These words were and still mean so much to me,” she told Arab News.

To date, more than 2,000 letters from 17 US states have been delivered to schoolchildren in Syria. The letters are collected by SETF volunteers and then taken over the Turkish border into rebel-held Syria.




For so many around the world, the Syrian conflict and those caught up in the fighting and repression feel very far away. The personal touch these letters carry created a direct link between children born in entirely different circumstances. (AN Photo)

One recent batch of hand-decorated cards came from Holy Souls’ pre-kindergarten class in Little Rock, Ark. Wisdom House responded with a photograph of its classrooms decorated with the letters and its pupils proudly holding up a banner that read: “Arkansas stands with the People of Syria.”

It was a simple yet powerful reminder that Syria’s children are not alone.

For many people around the world, including Americans, the Syrian conflict — and those caught up in the fighting and repression — can seem very far away. In that sense, the personal touch carried by these letters has created a bond between children who were born in two very different circumstances.

“The schools endured several forced displacements over the years, and the community was permanently forced from their homes in Idlib in early 2020,” Natalie Larrison, director of Wisdom House, told Arab News.

“Despite these obstacles, the resilience of the teachers and their communities, along with the incredible dedication of Wisdom House supporters, has kept both the kindergarten and women’s center successful and thriving.

“We hope that the children’s smiles are enough for our world leaders to see the importance of keeping them safe and giving them a chance for a free and happy future.”




A girl who was injured during aerial bombardment at a make-shift camp for displaced Syrians, is treated in the emergency ward of a hospital in the atby town of Maaret Misrin in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province on September 7, 2021. (AFP)

The fighting and human-rights violations in Syria no longer make headline news around the world. Analysts say this indifference, coupled with the inaction of the UN Security Council, has emboldened the regime to continue its bombing campaign.

Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Assad to the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The Kremlin hopes to convince the world to welcome the Syrian president back into the international fold and recognize him as Syria’s rightful ruler, despite his documented record of war crimes. 

The Russian government has also been pressing European nations to declare Syria “safe” for refugees to return to areas under regime control.

The experience of Syrians driven out by the war tells a different story. Omar Al-Shogre, a Swedish public speaker and human rights activist who has worked closely with SETF, spent years inside one of the regime’s most notorious prisons.

“There is something that the Syrian people fear far more than dying under bombardment. It is being detained by the intelligence services,” he told Arab News.




The program collects letters of solidarity from young people around the world and sends them directly to displaced Syrian civilians to reassure them they are not alone. (AN Photos)

“That basically means going through physical, sexual, and psychological torture for as long as you manage to stay alive in that detention center. Syrians refuse to return to Syria because someone is waiting for them. That someone is the intelligence services.”

For the children of rebel-held Syria, only the continuous lobbying of groups like SETF can prevent them from being forgotten altogether.

“Our vision for the future is to continue providing quality education to even more Syrians until every child has a chance to go to a school like Wisdom House,” Larrison said.

“Although the future of Syria is uncertain, we hope that the world will realize the importance of protecting these beautiful children and communities in Syria by telling their stories.”

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Twitter: @OS26


Abu Dhabi crown prince, Blinken discuss regional issues

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (File/Wikipedia)
Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (File/Wikipedia)
Updated 05 December 2021

Abu Dhabi crown prince, Blinken discuss regional issues

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (File/Wikipedia)
  • Blinken thanked the UAE for hosting and facilitating the safe transit of US citizens, embassy personnel, and foreign nationals from Afghanistan
  • UAE foreign minister held separate talks with his counterparts from Oman, India and Sri Lanka

LONDON: Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday to discuss “important regional matters,” the US State Department said.
Sheikh Mohammed and Blinken “reaffirmed their countries’ strong partnership and discussed ways to broaden and deepen their wide-ranging cooperation,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“Blinken also thanked the crown prince for the UAE’s generous support in hosting and facilitating the safe transit of US citizens, embassy personnel, and foreign nationals from Afghanistan to third countries, and commended the UAE for providing humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan,” Price added.
Meanwhile, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed held separate talks with his counterparts from Oman, India and Sri Lanka on the sidelines of the two-day 5th Indian Ocean Conference, which kicked off on Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
During the meetings, Sheikh Abdullah discussed strategic relations and ways to enhance prospects for joint cooperation in all fields, as well as the latest regional and international developments.
Sheikh Abdullah welcomed Oman’s Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Al-Busaidi, and stressed the depth of the relations between the UAE and the sultanate.
India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar praised the strong friendship between the UAE and his country, and their strategic partnership which is witnessing continuous growth and development.
Sheikh Abdullah also welcomed Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Pierce to Abu Dhabi and the two sides discussed bilateral relations and ways to support them in various fields, including tourism.


Jordan’s FM, US climate envoy discuss environmental protection

Jordan’s FM, US climate envoy discuss environmental protection
Updated 05 December 2021

Jordan’s FM, US climate envoy discuss environmental protection

Jordan’s FM, US climate envoy discuss environmental protection
  • Safadi and Kerry stressed the importance of the strategic partnership between Jordan and the US

LONDON: Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi held talks with US special envoy for climate, John Kerry, on Sunday to discuss environmental protection and confronting climate change.
“Safadi and Kerry stressed the importance of the strategic partnership between the kingdom and the US, and reviewed ways to enhance cooperation between the two countries,” Jordanian state news agency Petra reported.
Safadi praised the aid provided by the US to the Kingdom and its support for economic development, stressing the importance of its leading role in efforts to resolving regional crises and achieve peace and stability.
Kerry said that Jordan was a strong and essential ally of the US, and that his country appreciated the key role and efforts led by King Abdullah II to overcome regional challenges and achieve security, stability and peace.
Kerry reiterated Washington’s support for Jordan, including in the areas of environmental protection, facing the challenges of climate change, and developing clean energy and water sources.
“This engagement with government counterparts aims to accelerate global climate action following the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November,” the US State Department said in a statement.
It added that Kerry would discuss how the region could collaborate to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.


Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab

Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab
Updated 05 December 2021

Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab

Aboul Gheit: Iran seeks to control Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab
  • Aboul Gheit said that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger an arms race in the region

CAIRO: The Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said that Iran aims to extend its control over the Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab, either directly or through militias it funds.

During his participation in the seventh Rome-Mediterranean Dialogue, held in the Italian capital with the participation of senior officials, experts and economists from countries bordering the shores of the Mediterranean, he pointed to attacks carried out by Iran in the summer of 2019, as well as to the continuing threat posed by the Houthis to navigation in the Red Sea.

The secretary-general added that the stability of navigation in these strategic straits, especially in the transportation of petroleum products, represented a fundamental backbone of the global economy, and that maintaining freedom of navigation without threat was a global priority and not only for the Arab countries bordering it.

He said that Iran’s behavior in the region, and its apparent tendency to dominate and interfere with Arab countries, was behind the difficulty in establishing a security system in the Gulf based on cooperation and the common welfare of the people.

He said that several initiatives had been put forward on this, but the main problem remained a lack of confidence due to Iranian policies that represented a threat to its neighbors.

Aboul Gheit said that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger an arms race in the region. He hoped negotiations would succeed in dissuading Iran from achieving this goal to avoid a deterioration in the current security situation.

He said it was difficult to address the Iranian nuclear program without acknowledging that there was already a nuclear power in the region in Israel, especially in light of its insistence on destroying the two-state solution and wasting opportunities for its implementation.


Explosions heard near Syria-Iraq border, rebels deny blasts inside US base

Explosions heard near Syria-Iraq border, rebels deny blasts inside US base
Updated 05 December 2021

Explosions heard near Syria-Iraq border, rebels deny blasts inside US base

Explosions heard near Syria-Iraq border, rebels deny blasts inside US base
  • US-backed rebel group Maghawir Al-Thawra say the blasts were part of joint ground and air exercises that began earlier this week
  • The garrison was first set up when Daesh fighters controlled eastern Syria bordering Iraq

DUBAI/AMMAN: Syrian state television reported on Sunday that multiple explosions had been heard inside a US base in the Al-Tanf region near the Iraqi border.
The report was denied, however, by a commander in the US-backed rebel group Maghawir Al-Thawra, whose several hundred fighters work with US troops at the Tanf base, who said the blasts were part of joint ground and air exercises that began earlier this week and did not come from inside the base.
The garrison is located in a strategic area near Syria’s Tanf border crossing with Iraq at the crossroad of a main Baghdad-Damascus highway, Tehran’s main arms supply route by land to Syria and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia.
Several drones attacked the outskirts of the base last October but there were no American casualties, according to US officials.
While it is not common for attacks on the US troops at the outpost, Iranian-backed forces have frequently attacked American troops with drones and rockets in eastern Syria and Iraq. .
Russia and the Syrian government have repeatedly called on Washington to pull its troops from the Tanf base, where it has declared a 55 km (35 mile)-radius “deconfliction zone.”
The garrison was first set up when Daesh fighters controlled eastern Syria bordering Iraq, but since the militants were driven out Tanf has assumed a role as part of a US strategy to contain Iran’s military build-up in eastern Syria.


Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Vatican meeting to discuss Document on Human Fraternity

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Vatican meeting to discuss Document on Human Fraternity
Updated 05 December 2021

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Vatican meeting to discuss Document on Human Fraternity

Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in Vatican meeting to discuss Document on Human Fraternity
  • The two discussed their vision of what the relationship between followers of religions should be
  • Last month, Sheikh Al-Tayeb met Pope Francis on the sidelines of the Religious Leaders on Climate Change summit

Cairo: Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, held a meeting in the Vatican with Cardinal Miguel Angel Ayuso, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, to discuss how to implement the provisions of the Document on Human fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

This joint statement, which was signed by Pope Francis of the Catholic Church and Sheikh Al-Tayeb on Feb. 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, includes various proposed solutions from a religious standpoint to the current problems facing the world.

During the meeting Sheikh Al-Tayeb said that “the relationship of Al-Azhar and the Vatican remains an effective and real model for spreading tolerance and peace and combating extremism, hatred, wars and conflicts, and that the path of peace and dialogue is a difficult path, but the path is moving and making efforts,” adding that the world is in urgent need of the values of brotherhood, peaceful coexistence and respect for the other.

He stressed that religious leaders and scholars have a religious and societal duty to confront negative phenomena, especially with regard to moral aspects.

The two discussed their vision of what the relationship between followers of religions should be, and the role that religions should play in our contemporary world. The document seeks to activate dialogue about coexistence among human beings.

Ayuso said that the Grand Imam and His Holiness Pope Francis had the courage to fight battles for the good of humanity, and that the signing of the Document on Human Fraternity was not an easy thing.

But their persistence and sincerity helped to break barriers and repair broken bridges between some Muslims and Christians, and continued the dialogue between Al-Azhar and the Vatican after a rupture of nearly six years. They said they had begun to reap the fruits of this document in a rapprochement not only at the level of official institutions and institutes, but also between individuals among the wider masses.

Ayuso spoke about the great efforts of the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity that emerged from the document, noting that this committee includes religious and cultural leaders from different ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds around the world.

He said that even in their diversity the members of the committee represent a group of friends loyal to their humanity, united by their concern to work for mankind and end its suffering. They seek to replace hatred with love and intolerance with dialogue, especially between young people, to ensure healthy relations and a better future for coming generations.

Last month, Sheikh Al-Tayeb met Pope Francis on the sidelines of the Religious Leaders on Climate Change summit, where they said that returning to the teachings of religions is the way to save the world from extremism and division.