ANKARA: As part of a project jointly funded by the Goethe Institute, the Dutch Embassy, the Swedish Consulate, the French Cultural Center, the Istanbul Culture and Art Foundation, and the Anadolu Kultur Foundation, 40 Turkish and Syrian children living in Turkiye’s southeastern province of Gaziantep have collaborated to write and illustrate a book titled “Gokce” (sky in Turkish), alluding to the fact that people of all races, cultures and creeds live together under the same sky.
Gaziantep, whose population is nearly 2 million, is home to about half a million Syrian refugees. The city has the second-highest population of Syrians after Istanbul. Currently, there are 3.6 million Syrian refugees across Turkiye, including 1.6 million children.
The book — which has been published in Turkish and Arabic — is currently being distributed to libraries, schools and museums in the city, including mobile libraries for children that were set up following the earthquake in February that left more than 50,000 people dead in Turkiye and Syria. The book’s cover bears the fingerprints of all the children who helped to produce it.
“These children are the heroes of a common story,” Asli Gokgoz, a teacher and the project coordinator, told Arab News. “They grew up with different stories, but they showed that they could come together to produce a common narrative that symbolizes the cultural, ethnical and linguistic heterogeneity of Gaziantep province.”
The book opens with a well-known sentence: Once upon a time. Then, children began developing the story jointly by consensus. It is about the adventures of a girl named Gokce, who lives with her lambs and family on a green upland full of colorful flowers.
The children received creative-writing training and attended interactive reading and drawing workshops to enable them to better express their feelings through words and drawings.
“These workshops helped them listen to their own voices while at the same time paying attention to what their peers were saying. We tried to contribute to their own journey of self-discovery and help to reestablish their self-confidence,” Gokgoz said.
“They are aware of their differences but they also know that they enjoy the same child rights. Such a project helped them establish a common story by a collective effort to blend these disparities around a common dream,” Gokgoz continued.
Several Syrian children who took part in the project came to Gaziantep to escape the brutal war in their home country, and are still struggling to rebuild their lives, especially following February’s earthquake. One of them, 14-year-old Mariam Nasser, told Arab News: “In spite of differences in ages and cultural backgrounds, we can integrate our efforts to produce valuable results. Social cohesion is an important factor for healthy communities.”
Nasser, who was born in Syria and came to Gaziantep as a refugee several years ago, said the project’s workshops had helped her develop her imagination and writing abilities.
“I liked getting to know Turkish children and playing with them. I even felt my self-confidence growing. Our common project also helped our families, because Turkish and Syrian families also built bridges between themselves and left behind several prejudices,” she said. “This book is a clear sign that children can achieve anything when they come together under the same sky.”
Another Turkish participant shares the same feeling.
“After this project, I learned how to live together under the same sky,” 10-year-old Ege Mai, a resident of Gaziantep, told Arab News. “I understood that people can be different from each other, but that we are all basically the same.”