Spark in her eyes: Maya's story

Maya* is a 7-year-old Syrian girl, suffering from many physical disabilities. No school or centre would enrol her into their programs given her special needs, despite her mother’s best efforts.

This meant she stayed at home and was unable to form any kind of a social life or get an education. This led her to be an introvert, shy and unable to express her feelings,” Yamen tells us, a facilitator from the Peace Education program in Shatila, Lebanon. He goes on to say:

“Maya’s mother found out about the Peace Education program run by International Alert and Basmeh and Zeitooneh, and decided to enrol her.

Children play on the floor with colourful lego.
© Basmeh and Zeitooneh

In the first few sessions, we could see that she found it hard to adjust to her new surroundings and situation, despite this she wanted to continue attending the sessions since it was the only safe space where she experienced no stigma, judgment or bullying.

After a while we could see her start to develop, which led us to add her to the second cycle of sessions.

With the help of her friends and the facilitators, at the sessions, Maya developed some basic communications skills and started to express her feelings, despite having speech difficulties. She participated in the activities, answered the questions addressed to her and remembered the dates of the sessions. She began to grow and develop psychologically.

She became more accepting of others and expressed her feelings with others regularly, her happiness or sadness.

The psychological change she encountered influenced her physical movement, she started to walk and run, knowing and accepting the harsh truth of the difference between her body and the other’s bodies.

Maya flourished in the sessions where she was able to paint and play with Lego and clay, despite the difficulty she has using her hands. They were activities that challenged her, excited her, allowed her to build and be creative and made her feel relaxed, accepted and safe.

Maya is still growing and developing, her performance as part of a social initiative was amazing, she wanted to be a funny, make people laugh and be a clown. Her mother was very proud when she was watching her, she literally cried from happiness.”

Children play on the floor with colourful lego pieces.
© Basmeh and Zeitooneh

Maya’s mother also tells us about the incredible change she noticed in her daughter:

“She used to be very shy and confused whenever someone said her name. She was an introvert because of her physical disabilities, she didn’t speak with anyone and didn’t move from her place, but sometimes she used to get angry at people for no reason. She also had problems with her bones so she couldn’t walk or run properly.

Many doctors told me that she needs to go to school but I couldn’t find a school that could take her. I went from a place to place asking if they have any programs that would fit her situation, with no luck. Then I met Assem, a facilitator from the Peace Education program with Basmeh and Zeitooneh, he was the only one to tell me he could and would register her.

I wanted to get Maya out of the house and interact with other people and children, to help her overcome her loneliness and sadness. After Maya attended a few of the Peace Education sessions I started to notice many changes. Her appetite for food increased, she started to eat more and started to drink milk, something she refused to do before. She has also become less shy, she used to cry if someone bothered her but now she tells me right away. She is more independent, she knows and understands her body and can control her movements.

Three children play together in front of a painted wall.
© Basmeh and Zeitooneh

She’s stronger than ever now, even all my neighbours have told me that she has changed. Maya knows how to express her feelings, I have never seen her talking and expressing herself like this before, she has even learned how to hold a pen in her hands! Now I let her walk alone if there are no cars in the streets, without the constant fear that she may fall.

When you look into Maya’s eyes there’s a spark of happiness now and that is enough for me, it makes me very happy.

I wish the sessions were longer and didn’t end because she was benefiting from it a lot. Now she is back at home with nothing to do.”

About the project

Our peace education project aims to increase knowledge on the factors that make young Syrians vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremist groups and to assess how peace education can reduce this vulnerability. We are exploring this issue through field research in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon and by working through local partner organisations in diverse communities across the Middle East.

The radicalisation of Syrian children and young people within Syria and in neighbouring countries represents a growing challenge to peace. Young people are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by extremist groups, and yet, beyond anecdotal evidence, there is little understanding of what makes people vulnerable and how education projects can prevent radicalisation. This project seeks to address this gap.

Thank you to The Body Shop for their support for this work in Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon.

*name changed


International Alert is grateful for the kind support of our donors.
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