Kiersten Blake, United States
What does Jusoor mean to you?
As I got off the bus, far away from Los Angeles and New York, my two homes, to stand face-to-face with Jusoor’s Jarrahiyeh school, I would like to remember that I was unafraid and sure of my decision…but, in all reality, I was nervous. I set my things down in my new classroom, number 5, and rushed to the outhouse to stand over the porcelain covered hole in the ground. I would like to say that my year of Arabic studies came in handy as the children slowly made their way into the classroom, but my mind went blank as it became apparent that the dialect of their home village was lightyears away from what I had practiced. Before, I would have believed that the students would not like me, as I was American, a symbol of tragedy and black, something alien…instead I was embraced despite all my pitfalls and called “friend”. I was called “beautiful” as students said my hair was as curly as theirs and that our skin colors were one in the same. It was then that I felt something I did not realize I would feel on this whirlwind of a trip, love.
Jusoor means refuge.
Osama, the Vice Principal of the Jarrahiyeh, the second of the two Jusoor schools, said something like this to me one afternoon, “You know, education is important but for each and every child they need to feel happy, safe, secure, and only then can they grasp the concept. That is why you make a great teacher.” In a low tone, I tried to hide my impatience—I knew that but Osama had been sick for the past two days and I really wanted to go over the plans for the last-day-of-school-carnival—really, just face painting, dancing, and arts and crafts—we were trying to set up for the kids. Osama’s mind began to turn to other things, the fact that people in the camps were returning to Syria, the fact that Lebanon failed to introduce legislation allowing for Syrians to work in the country, the fact that his world that was barely patched together was unravelling again.
“Why don’t we focus on something happy?” I slipped. The moment the words came out, I immediately regretted them.
Osama’s eyes went blank, the face that always was lit up with smiles was solemn, he was sick, but not from the any virus or bacterium. He was sick from the stress of not knowing what will come of the next day and for someone in his mid-20’s, it was slowly killing him. “You are privileged. You come from America. You cannot understand.”
And he was right, I could not understand. As a Jamaican female in the program, I had seen injustice happen in my very own community in America, but not like this. Where, aside from food, water, and shelter, complete and utter rest was also a privilege to have here. I bit my lip and looked down at the cement floor. I could not understand.
Jusoor means community.
The second to last day before we left the school, I walked around with Shadia and Olivia, the Filmmaker and photographer in charge of creating a short documentary for Jusoor’s new branding campaign, around the camp to fill their B-roll. With each step, my heart cracked a bit more as I ventured farther into the abyss. Osama told me that there were over 80 camps creating little neighborhoods in the area, but our tiny school only had 5 classrooms. Looking down the dirt path, I couldn’t see the end. Jusoor couldn’t reach all the children it could help. And after a month here in Lebanon, I began to finally crack. “Teacher…?” Aman, one of my students, ran up to me. Her ringlets flying in every which direction around the number 7 sticker placed on her forehead, a reward for getting her third math equation right. “….sad?”
I blinked my eyes, don’t cry.
“No, I just wanted to see the houses. Where is Shadia?”
I put my hands into a square while saying ‘camera’ in Arabic and pretended to take a photo. Aman nodded. As she took my hand we left the main road to meander through the camp surrounding the school. Some of the children, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers stood in their doorways to get a glimpse of one of the foreign teachers, while others huddled in the corners of their makeshift shelters to prepare their houses for meals or sit on their makeshift porches to get some air. At the end of the row, stood Shadia and Olivia being surrounded by kids asking to have their photos taken. Their shirts a little more vibrant, their hair a little neater, their foreheads sporting stickers or facepaint. Then there were those unsure of whether to engage, those who did not go to school. The contrast though I didn’t want to acknowledge it, was apparent.
“Let’s take a picture of the kids running,” I blurted, “I can disappear behind the tent over there so it’ll be just them in the shot.”
“Sounds great,” Shadia grins.
“Come,” I shouted in Arabic motioning all children in-school and out-of-school forward. As the ground began to fly under my feet, I turned to look back. In that moment I just saw kids. Smiling, laughing, silly, kids all-together, as they should be. United. That day, especially, my learning didn’t just happen inside the classroom.
Jusoor means peace.
The dust was something my class, would always complain about with the brown swirling through the air. The wind would sometimes blow in through the gate into our room since it was the closest to the front of the school. This dust was the same dust I came home with everyday, caked on my shoes and clothes. Ordinarily, this would be intolerable, but as I packed to leave Lebanon, I felt more at peace. My shoes, normally grey and white had a tinge of reddish brown. I was bringing that soil that allows my students to live on and grow up with everywhere I went. In the airport, there are always signs saying, ‘Beware, plants, soil, fruits, etc. can be dangerous to bring into the country.” I didn’t see the dust like that. In the dust, are the memories I have of my students that will stay with me. America needs more memories because they are far from dangerous, they are necessary. They are necessary to challenge the ideas we may have of other people, countries, traditions, faiths. They allow conversation and exchange. I truly believe what is dangerous is keeping them out.
To anyone reading this post and considering Jusoor, apply. If your mind is open and strong and your heart is full of love, there is no shortage of help. This summer changed my life and it can change yours too.