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)
Short Url
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.”

--------------

Twitter: @OS26


Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents

Updated 5 sec ago

Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents

Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents
KUWAIT: Kuwait’s ruling emir on Wednesday paved the way for an amnesty pardoning dissidents that has been a major condition of opposition lawmakers to end a months-long standoff with the appointed government that has paralyzed legislative work.
Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah tasked the parliament speaker, the prime minister and the head of the supreme judicial council to recommend the conditions and terms of the amnesty ahead of it being issued by decree, Sheikh Nawaf’s office said.

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians
Updated 20 October 2021

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians
  • Among the casualties were several school children

AMMAN: At least 11 civilians died on Wednesday in a Syrian army shelling of residential areas of rebel-held Ariha city, witnesses and rescue workers said.
The shelling from Syrian army outposts, which came shortly after a roadside bomb killed at least 13 military personnel in Damascus, fell on residential areas in the city in Idlib province.
Among the casualties were several school children, witnesses and medical workers in the opposition enclave said.


13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media
Updated 20 October 2021

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media
  • Images released by SANA showed a burning bus

DAMASCUS: A bomb attack on an army bus in Damascus killed at least 13 people Wednesday in the bloodiest such attack in years, the SANA state news agency reported.
“A terrorist bombing using two explosive devices targeted a passing bus” on a key bridge in the capital, the news agency said, reporting an initial casualty toll of 13 dead and three wounded.
Images released by SANA showed a burning bus and what it said was a bomb squad defusing a third device that had been planted in the same area.
Damascus had been mostly spared such violence in recent years, especially since troops and allied militia retook the last significant rebel bastion near the capital in 2018.


Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists
Updated 20 October 2021

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists
  • Civil society members stage a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show ‘solidarity with the judiciary’

BEIRUT: Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 port explosion, resumed investigations on Tuesday after being notified by the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation of its second decision to reject the request submitted by the defendant in the case of MP Ali Hassan Khalil.

Normal service resumed at the Justice Palace in Beirut after a long vacation. The Lebanese army guarding roads leading to the palace and Ain Remaneh, which was the arena of bloody events on Thursday, over protests to dismiss Bitar from the case. The repercussions of these events have affected the political scene, its parties and the people.

Civil society activists under the auspices of the “Lebanese Opposition Front” staged a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show “solidarity with the Judiciary carrying out its national duties and support for Judge Bitar to face the threats.”

Speaking on behalf of the protestors, activist Dr. Ziad Abdel Samad said: “A free and sovereign state cannot exist without a legitimate authority, judiciary and justice.”

Abdel Samad urged “the defendants to appear before Judge Bitar, because the innocent normally show up and defend themselves instead of resorting to threats.”

“We have reached this low point today because of a ruling elite allied with the Hezbollah statelet, protected by illegal arms.

“They want to dismiss Judge Bitar in all arbitrary ways and threats because he has come so close to the truth after they managed to dismiss the former judge, hiding behind their immunities because they know they are involved in the crime.”

Abdel Samad claimed that “those making threats are involved in the crime.”

Regarding the Tayouneh events that took place last week, he said: “They took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully, as they claimed, but they almost got us into a new civil war as a result of the hatred and conspiracies against Lebanon.”

Lawyer May Al-Khansa, known for her affiliation with Hezbollah, submitted a report at the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation against the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, Judge Bitar and “all those who appear in the investigation to be involved, accomplices or partners in crimes of terrorism and terrorism funding, undermining the state’s authority, inciting a strife, and other crimes against the law and the Lebanese Constitution.”

Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah on Monday night waged an unprecedented campaign of accusations and incitement against the Lebanese Forces party and its leader.    

Nasrallah accused them of being “the biggest threat for the presence of Christians in Lebanon” and said they were “forming alliances with Daesh.”

In a clear threat to Geagea and his party, Nasrallah bragged in his speech of having “100,000 trained fighters,” calling on Christians to “stand against this murderer.”

Nasrallah accused Bitar of “carrying out a foreign agenda targeting Hezbollah in the Beirut port crime” and of “being supported by embassies and authorities, turning him into a dictator.”

During the parliamentary session on Tuesday, no contact was made between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces. However, a handshake was spotted between the Lebanese Forces’ MP Pierre Abu Assi and the Amal Movement’s MP Hani Kobeissi.

Minister of Culture Mohammed Mortada, who represents Hezbollah, said “Hezbollah’s ministers will attend the ministerial session if Prime Minister Najib Mikati calls for one, but the justice minister and the judiciary must find a solution to the issue of lack of trust in Bitar.”

Several calls were made on Monday night between different political groups to prevent escalation and calm the situation.

Efforts are being made to reach a settlement that allows Bitar to keep his position and for defendants in the Beirut port case — who are former ministers and MPs — to be referred to the Supreme Judicial Council for prosecution.

Elsewhere, parliament dropped the proposal of a women’s quota ensuring female participation through  a minimum of 26 seats.

It passed a move to allow expats to vote for the 128 MPs and dropped the decision to allocate six additional seats representing them.

The parliament’s decision angered Gebran Bassil, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc. Following the parliamentary session, Bassil referred to “a political game in the matter of expats’ right to vote, which we will not allow to happen.”


European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law

European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law
Updated 20 October 2021

European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law

European court raps Turkey over presidential ‘insults’ law
  • Thousands have been charged and sentenced over the crime of insulting President Erdogan in 7 years

STRASBOURG, France: Europe’s top human rights court on Tuesday called on Turkey to change a law regarding insulting the president under which tens of thousands have been prosecuted, after ruling that a man’s detention under the law violated his freedom of expression.

Vedat Sorli was given a suspended 11-month jail sentence in 2017 over a caricature and a photograph of President Tayyip Erdogan that he shared on Facebook, along with satirical and critical comments.

There was no justification for Sorli’s detention and pre-trial arrest or the imposition of a criminal sanction, the European Court of Human Rights court said.

“Such a sanction, by its very nature, inevitably had a chilling effect on the willingness of the person concerned to express his or her views on matters of public interest,” it said.

The criminal proceedings against Sorli were “incompatible with freedom of expression,” the court added.

Thousands have been charged and sentenced over the crime of insulting Erdogan in the seven years since he moved from being prime minister to president.

In 2020, 31,297 investigations were launched in relation to the charge, 7,790 cases were filed and 3,325 resulted in convictions, according to Justice Ministry data. Those numbers were slightly lower than the previous year.

Since 2014, the year Erdogan became president, 160,169 investigations were launched over insulting the president, 35,507 cases were filed and there were 12,881 convictions.

In a prominent case earlier this year, a court sentenced pro-Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas to 3-1/2 years for insulting Erdogan, one of the longest sentences over the crime, according to Demirtas’ lawyer.

The court said Turkey’s law on insulting the president affords the head of state a privileged status over conveying information and opinion about them.

It said the law should be changed to ensure people have the freedom to hold opinions and impart ideas without interference by authorities in order to put an end to the violation it found in Sorli’s case.

10 diplomat summoned

Separately, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of the US and nine other countries to protest a statement they issued that called for the release of imprisoned philanthropist and civil rights activist Osman Kavala.

Kavala, 64, has been kept behind bars for four years, accused of attempting to overthrow the Turkish government through the 2013 nationwide demonstrations that started at Istanbul’s Gezi Park. He has also been charged with espionage and attempting to overthrow the government in connection with a failed military coup in 2016.

The ministry said the ambassadors were told that “the impertinent statement via social media regarding a legal proceeding conducted by independent judiciary was unacceptable.” Turkey rejects the attempt to “politicize judicial proceedings and put pressure on (the) Turkish judiciary,” it continued.

“Turkey is a democratic country governed by the rule of law that respects human rights, and it was reminded that the Turkish judiciary will not be influenced by such irresponsible statements,” the ministry added.