Notes from a Refugee Camp

Escaping the horrors of war (Illustration: Maxim Usik)

People tell me that a sixteen-year-old girl does not think about such serious things.  I tell them, that a sixteen-year-old girl who has lived through the horrors of war, who has lost her father and brother to war, who has seen her mother go almost insane from the war . . . Such a girl no longer thinks about her new telephone and her pretty shoes.  On the contrary, she wonders why the rest of the world does not think about weapons manufactured in a dozen different countries exploding in a neighborhood where yesterday, children were going to school.

It doesn’t really matter what war I have fled.  There are probably hundreds of sixteen-year-old girls in the world today, in a dozen different refugee camps, living in a tent that flaps in the wind, breathing dust that covers everything, and listening to the shouts and the wailing, day and night, as each new throng of exhausted refugees entering the camp bring their reports from the war zone.

I come from an ancient country, littered with the debris of civilizations.  The books which I read in school about the history of Syria are a chronicle of battles and wars and occupations so numerous that no child could ever remember them all.  So of course, one could wonder: How many sixteen-year-old girls were caught in a war, in a siege, in a massacre, over the centuries?  How many young girls were slaughtered?  How many older girls were sold into slavery?  

My mother, brother and I traveled in the crowded back of a truck through the night from Aleppo to the border with Turkey.  With the roar of artillery in the distance behind us, we were allowed to cross the border.  Turkish troops directed us to a nearby refugee camp.  We were registered and given a tent with UNHCR printed on the canvas: the good people of the United Nations are now taking care of me and the remainder of my family.

For how long will we be here?  Until the war is over.  And when will the war be over?  Or perhaps the question should be, “When will the wars—plural, since people first gathered along the banks of the Euphrates River—be over?”  

I read in one of my schoolbooks that agriculture first developed in the “fertile crescent”.  Civilizations flourished because people learned the art of irrigation.  Early engineers channeled water from the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, through a growing network of farms.  Once people had enough food, they turned their attention to other things, like commerce, architecture, a written language, mathematics, and a code of law.

Yes, great civilizations grew and flourished.  Until, one by one, they were destroyed by some conquering army.  Because, despite the flow of commerce, despite the magnificent temples and palaces, despite the poetry, despite the mathematics that reached from coins in the marketplace to stars in the night sky, and despite even the code of law . . . men kept fighting their wars.

So now a girl of sixteen years, finding herself with a long stretch of empty time ahead of her, will try to answer a question that the generals and the warlords and the dictators over the centuries perhaps never considered.

The question is not: “How to best fight and win a war?”

The question is not: “Why do we keep fighting these insane wars?”

The question should be: “How do we get beyond these wars?  So that the children can get on with the task of civilization.”


My name is Rashida.  I was born in the Salaheddin district of the City of Aleppo, in northern Syria.  Because of our magnificent ancient architecture, Aleppo has been declared a “World Heritage City”.  It is now, increasingly, day by day, night by night, bomb craters and rubble.

My father is still in Aleppo, a member of the Free Syrian Army; he is perhaps alive, perhaps dead.  My brother is also in Aleppo, a “video activist” in the streets with his little telephone camera, part of the “YouTube generation”.  Ahmed is one of dozens of teenagers who are trying to show the world what is happening in our embattled country.  

My mother did not want to flee Aleppo . . . until a helicopter gunship fired a missile at the apartment building next to ours and it collapsed, with hundreds of sleeping people inside.  So she took her daughter and twelve-year-old son and joined the hysterical mob that was trying to get out of the city.  

Now my mother, wrapped in a black abaya as she rocks with her eyes closed and moans in a corner of the tent, worries about Omar, her husband, worries about Ahmed, her fourteen-year-old journalist.  She depends on me to fetch food when it is available, to fetch bottles of water when they are available, and to accompany her to the “sanitary station”.  

My other job is to keep my little brother, Wasim, from leaving the camp so that he can go back to Aleppo and try to find his father and brother.  Twelve years old, Wasim says that he is old enough to handle a Kalashnikov, or at least a telephone camera.

And so . . . this is just the right time and place, don’t you think, to consider the question, “How do we—how do all people—get beyond the madness of war?”


One thing about a refugee camp is that everyone is here.  Muslims and Christians are standing in the same lines for water.  Kurds who fled the American war in Iraq, and Syrian merchants who abandoned their shops in the souk in Aleppo, stand in the same lines for food.  And in the long lines at the “sanitary station” stand people who a month ago were city people, village people, desert people.  

We have as well “the Westerners” in our camp, European doctors and humanitarian administrators, with their clipboards and water bottles, and funny hats against the heat of the Syrian sun.  One woman I especially like: an Irish doctor who wears a blue scarf (United Nations blue) over her red hair as she goes from tent to tent, asking about the health of the family huddled inside.  Through an interpreter—a student from the University of Aleppo—she asks about fevers, vomiting, diarrhea.  

When the doctor visited our tent, my mother stared at the ground, her normally alert eyes absolutely dull. I said to the doctor, her blue eyes very alert, “My mother is a midwife.  She has been trained in a clinic.  She has brought many babies into the world.  Perhaps she can help you in the camp.”

When the doctor heard from the interpreter what I had said, she looked at me with gratitude, then she asked my mother for her name.  My mother stared.  I said, “Zainab.  I am Rashida.  We are tent number 827.  When you need us, you call.  I will bring my mother.”

That was a week ago.  My mother now knows the way to the medical tent.  She spends more and more hours there every day.  Doctor Flanagan, or “Doctor Rosie”, as she asked us to call her, stopped this morning at our tent to tell me that my mother is “indispensible”.  

I had some English in school, but “indispensible” was a new word for me.  I will teach it to my mother this evening.


A few days ago, I spoke with a Christian in our camp.  

What sort of Christian would you like?  We have Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Maronites, Nestorians, Chaldeans, Roman Catholics, and a scattering of different sorts of Protestants.  (I could list as many different sorts of Muslims as well.)

The Christian with whom I spoke while waiting in a hot dusty line for bread was a Syrian Orthodox woman who taught economics at the university.

I asked her what Jesus had to say about children, especially children caught in a war.

She looked at me, wary, and yet she could understand why I might ask such a question.  She invited me to her tent—after we had received our ration of bread and had taken care of our families—so that she could look through her Bible in search of a few particular verses.

I did later visit her in her tent, where she and her family welcomed me and shared their bread . . . but the verses which she found in her worn Bible came from a book in which men, grown men, were the important personages.  Children were mentioned here and there, but it was the men, often in conflict with each other, who claimed the most attention.

Being the sort of girl that I am, I continued asking other people, Sunni and Shiites, and Alawis, and Ismailis and Druze, about children in their Koran, especially about children caught in a war.  I pretended to be a schoolgirl working on a project which I would present in class when the war was over and everything went back to normal again.    

Rather than offer my meager findings, I would ask you to do the same.  What is written in your Holy Book about children caught in a war?  What is written about getting beyond these wars, other than the invocation, countless times, of the word “peace”?  

Because, you see, as a girl growing up, I had often accompanied my mother in her work as a midwife.  I witnessed those first moments of breathing and kicking and wailing.  I saw the smile on the sweaty face of the exhausted mother.  I watched the care in every move that my mother made with her knowing hands.  

I had witnessed, again and again, the moment when the Creator gave us another extraordinary gift.  And because of that, I now felt very strongly that this war spat in the face of the Creator.


Ahh, but the Creator created more than just people.  When the rains came each year to the desert and flowers bloomed where before there had been only rock and sand: that too was a gift.  

I had seen pictures in my schoolbooks of butterflies in a rainforest.  Of the tallest trees in the world, growing in California.  Of sea birds that gather by the thousands on an island to lay their eggs.  Of reindeer, in a flock like our flocks of sheep, but in a world of snow.

I so much wanted to see those places, if ever I were able to travel outside of my Syria (other than to a refugee camp in Turkey).  That was the reason I studied English in school: so that one day I might visit California, to look up at a tree that reached like a minaret toward heaven.

So I began to ask people in the line for water and in the line for bread, what their Holy Book said about the animals, and the flowers, and about the fish in the sea.  And especially, what about the animals that were caught in a war?

You might think that a girl going to school in Aleppo would never have heard about pollution and this thing called “climate change”.  But of course I had, if only because the Euphrates River comes from the snow in the mountains of Turkey, and if the snow melts—as the Earth grows warmer—our great river will slowly disappear.  And remember, it was this river which nourished all of our civilizations.  

So I began to ask people in the lines for water and bread what their Holy Book said about “climate change”.  What did their verses say about the melting of the snow?

Rather than present my meager findings, I would ask you to do the same.  

Of course, we all know what the Holy Books say about women.  We have our place, we have our duties, and so be it.

You might, as you conduct your research, pursue this line of questioning as well: How long shall women suffer in these unrelenting wars?  How long before they rise up and begin to write a new chapter of scripture?  A new gospel of peace.


Those are the thoughts of a girl named Rashida, in a refugee camp just across the border from the war in Syria, in August, 2012.

Ma salaama.  Go in peace.


To be continued (on

"Notes from a Refugee Camp" is an excerpt from John Slades new book Melting at One End, Bleeding at the Other - now avaliable in Norwegian (link).

John Slade is a Norwegian-American author born in Buffalo, New York. He has a doctorate in literature from Stanford University, and is a certified speaker for Climate Reality. You can find his books at is looking for contributors!

Fremmed is an organization founded in February of 2016, with the purpose of spreading cultural awareness about immigration, as well as the exchange of ideas between Norwegians and immigrants in Norway.

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