POIGNANT The unimaginable and the ordinary sit side by side in this colourful book by young immigrants.
Syrian and Palestinian children living in Mayo share their artworks, stories and hopes for the future in a beautiful new book
We are children who have fun
together. We were born in Syria or
Palestine before we came to Ireland.
We all speak many languages,
We made this book to be famous.
We hope you will enjoy learning
about our lives.
— ‘A Strong Heart’ welcome note
On midsummer’s night, June 21, rays of hope and love shone from the Linenhall Arts Centre. Inside, ‘A Strong Heart: A book of stories and dreams for the future by 16 Syrian and Palestinian children living in County Mayo’ was being launched.
On the invitation of publisher Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership, Syrian and Palestinian families and other community members gathered at the arts centre to celebrate the book’s stories and art, all of which were created by migrant children living within the county.
‘A Strong Heart’ was developed through a creative process guided by writer Mary Branley and artist Vanya Lambrecht-Ward. The launch took place the day after the UN’s World Refugee Day and was timed to coincide with World Refugee Week.
Initiated and developed by Kids’ Own, and supported by Mayo County Council and South West Mayo Development Company, the project aimed to offer a space for migrant children to develop their creativity and self-expression through an artistic process, and to publish a book that would put their voices, lives and experiences to the fore.
During April and May, the group of children met at The Linenhall for five weeks to work with Branley and Lambrecht-Ward on developing the content for their book. ‘A Strong Heart: A book of stories and dreams for the future by Syrian and Palestinian children living in County Mayo’, is the beautiful fruit of these labours.
Colourful artworks sit along side self-penned personal introductions. A turn of the page and it could be Rashed, a 13-year-old basketball player living in Ballina who can’t wait to learn to drive; or ten-year-old Mohammed, who loves cycling around Claremorris lake, playing in the town’s playground and his baby sister, Basma, whose name means ‘smiling’; or 13-year-old Yahya, who would like to grow up to be a policeman in Westport; or Amal, who loves learning Irish ‘as it is important that it is kept up’, and who likes Castlebar because it’s ‘not noisy’.
The pages also contain the children’s views on subjects like friendship, food and Ramadan. One of Amal’s favourite meals is from Turkey – ‘vine leaves with meat and rice. Then you squeeze lemon juice over it’. Hamza confides that ‘Syrian bread is good. It is different to Irish bread. But I like Irish bread now. I have Nutella on it’.
“Amal is my old friend for two years,” reveals Amer. “We met at the hotel in Ireland and we played together … It’s lovely to see her again.” Khaled and his best friend Seán go to the park ‘every single day’ to play ‘World Cup’ with other children – but ‘it doesn’t matter who wins because we are all friends together’.
Sidrat is determined to share the love: “All the third class are my friends.”
Explaining why Muslims fast during Ramadan, Amal, Alaa and Mohamad say, “The reason we do this is that we feel what poor people feel, who are without money and can’t buy food in so many countries.”
There is a moving piece by Rahaf, in which he describes his family’s experience of fleeing Syria. “My family left [Syria] in 2015, because the Government took my brother five times and when he came home he was not very well … The men who were going to bring us to Greece took the money and left us in the jungle. That was frightening … After ten months in Greece, we came to Ireland but before that we were in a bad refugee camp. It had snakes.”
The more universal, everyday preoccupations of children also make an appearance. “My sister Rahme is three,” writes an endearingly exasperated Khaled. “She is the boss. When we go outside she always wants to come out with us, and if we don’t let her, she throws water at the television. She goes into my room and takes my stuff out of my bag and throws it out the window.” Khaled also loves marbles and his rabbits, and believes he has ‘the biggest garden in the whole of Claremorris’.
As Ireland’s only dedicated publisher of books by children, Kids’ Own is committed to an ethos of social justice and social inclusion for children. Many previous Kids’ Own titles have involved collaborations with children from minority cultures, or children who have experienced social exclusion and whose voices and experiences are ignored by, or silent to mainstream culture.
Kids’ Own acting director Jo Holmwood believes that giving children ways to express their thoughts and perspectives is of vital importance. “As Ireland celebrates 25 years since its ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, now, it is as important as ever that we continue to support children from all backgrounds to have a voice in our society and to be given a platform for their ideas and creative expression to be celebrated and valued.”
Mayo County Council, working with South West Development Company and other agencies, has overseen the resettlement of 19 families from Syria and Palestine in Mayo under the UNHCR Refugee Resettlement Programme. Commenting on ‘A Strong Heart’, Head of Community Engagement with Mayo County Council Siofra Kilcullen, said the council was ‘delighted’ to support this ‘beautiful project’, and she praised the way it ‘puts the spotlight on the wonderful creative contribution these new communities are making to our county.’
The words and artworks within this book are moving beyond measure. All children, migrant or not, have stories to tell, pictures to draw, friends to cherish. But here, we also get the occasional insight into the mark that separation and displacement can leave on young lives. “My dream for the future is to be an astronaut and fly away when I grow up,” writes Aya. “I’m going to get all the people to build my rocket. I’m going to take the people I love with me so they will be okay.”
This book shows how migrant children are more than little faces running around a refugee camp; they are more than their war-torn homelands, their incredible journeys, their religious beliefs –and their vulnerability and their resilience. They are all of these things, and so much more.
Amal says she wants to be a doctor one day. “I would like to help poor people who get hurt to get better.” She notes that, “When you are a doctor, you need a strong heart.” Seems she already has what’s needed.
‘A Strong Heart: A book of stories and dreams for the future by 16 Syrian and Palestinian children living in County Mayo’ is available for €10 from www.kidsown.ie and select independent bookshops. It will soon be available widely throughout the county.