notes

A 12-year-old girl drew these for me and slipped them, folded, on top of my notepad before I left her family’s apartment yesterday.

The girl, whose name is Salma, is a refugee from Syria who lives with her parents and five younger siblings in a one-bedroom apartment in Thessaloniki. She knows parts of six languages – Kurdish, Arabic, English, Greek, Spanish and German – from interacting with volunteers from all over the world when she stayed at camps. When she bounces a ball, she counts to five in English, then starts over in Spanish, and then repeats with the rest.

Salma has never had a formal education.

As I spoke with Salma, I tried to compare her childhood to my own. When I was 12 years old, I knew I would always be able to live in my home. I had a bed to myself to sleep in at night and a room to call my own. I went to elementary school a mile from my house. My parents helped me on class projects. I knew I would eventually go to college.

Salma has lived in tents for half of her life and does not know where she will be living tomorrow, much less a year from now. She does not have a home, but a temporary residence surrounded by hateful neighbors. Her family of eight has one full-sized bed, and whoever doesn’t fit sleeps on the ground in an open room. She does not know when she will be allowed to start school. She does not know what education level she would even begin at.

Salma, who did nothing wrong except be born in Syria instead of America, has faced countless hurdles. Just one of these could cause someone to turn their back on the world. The combination, however, has not taken the jump out of her step. Salma welcomed my colleagues and I with huge smiles, genuine laughter and an open mind and heart. When we parted she embraced us individually and gave us the notes – notes which I will keep forever to remind me of Salma, of her siblings, of her story, and to remind me of why I do what I do.

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