Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Toqa, her hats, her dreams: Life of a 10 year old Syrian refugee in Zaatari camp

A camera at Zaatari camp in Jordan is not very welcome. Syrian refugees who fled the war in Syria and settled there are weary about revealing their identities fearing for family members who remained back home. But this little machine attracts little kids who rush to pose with a victory sign and insist you take their pictures. Toqa was different. She froze. Then she stared deep in the lens, half a tear shivering in the corner of her stunning eyes.

She stared deep in the lens, half a tear
 shivering in the corner of her eyes.
She had an aristocratic attitude about her posture. The red hat she had on only gave it a notch. I froze too and she walked away. Only then did I realize that I haven’t even asked what her name was but that infectious look haunted me for days after. Something about her was so inviting and I decided to look for her.

This is the story of Toqa, short for Toqa al-Qouloub, in Arabic purity of the hearts. She is ten.

The word Zaatari for Toqa had meant before the crisis the beach where her parents used to take her on holidays with her two sisters and brother. Now it is home. But Zaatari beach in Syria and Zaatari camp in Jordan have only the sand in common.

“When we crossed the border from Syria to Jordan on foot, I looked around and I mistakenly thought that we had reached Zaatari camp. Only hours later, when the buses came at dawn did I realize this is still the border,” she confessed to me. “I was very tired and thirsty.

Toqa had walked for almost two hours carrying a bag and holding the hand of her four-year old cousin.

“It was dark but there was moonlight. I wasn’t scared. I was only worried that my little cousin would fall. I had to slow down. His mother was holding his little brother and was already ahead of us,” she remembers. ”we reached a dirt road. He was still walking slowly and I was about to trip.” 

Back in Dar'a's Busra Al-Sham, known for its famous Roman archaeological sites, life had changed for Toqa. The sound of shelling and fighting was drawing closer. One day, at Toqa’s school, students were all dismissed.

“We heard that the school is no longer safe. All the kids started running. I was looking for my sisters and brother but they had headed to our aunt’s house near the school. I ran in another direction home.” That day, Toqa was terrified.

“For days my mother was trying to reach my dad who works in Algeria. But the lines would not go through. She had to go to the roof of the building to make the call but that was dangerous,” she told me remembering the day she left Syria, a day she remembers vividly.

Toqa’s mother asked the kids not to pack too much. “We will have to carry these bags on our backs,” she told them. Toqa only packed a few clothes and her hair clips. “And my hats,” she remembered with a smile.

“When we were in the car, I looked back at the house and cried.”

Two weeks later, the house was shelled; her mother later told me, regretting not bringing the photo albums and asking the kids to pack light.

But more than the house, Toqa misses her grandma and grandpa, who have a “beautiful garden with all kinds of fruits,” she says naming all the trees in the garden. She also misses Racha, her best friend, “with long dark hair, blue eyes, and white skin… I don’t know her whereabouts. I wish she comes to the camp, but I am sure, one day I will see her again,” she said biting her lower lip.

Toqa also goes to the camp's school where she receives a daily nutritious snack consisting of a fortified date bar. She has only one bite and packs the rest in her bag. “I give it to my mother when I go back to the tent. It is for the baby. My mother is pregnant.”

Toqa is not just a sensible kid. She has always been the brightest among her peers in school back in Syria. Here, in Zaatari, she works harder because the curriculum is different.

“I have to be the top of my class. I study a lot. I always study alone because I have to rely on myself. When I grow up, I can only depend on myself and I have to get used to that,” she explained with enthusiasm. Your dreams? I asked. “I want to become a surgeon to heal people and save their lives. If someone’s injuries are grave, I want to be able to save them."

When I posted her picture of Facebook, a Syrian friend commented "I hope the future of Syria will be as pretty as this face." So do I.

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