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Syria crisis: Resilience in the City of the Sun

I’m on my way to visit children who have recently fled across the border from Syria, taking refuge in a city called Baalbek, in the middle of Lebanon’s Bekaa valley.

I don’t have an interpreter with me today so I don’t know what stories I’ll gather, but I’m looking forward to seeing how these children are coping in their new environment.

The City of the Sun

As our car enters the city, my colleague Miled explains to me that Baalbek is actually the ancient Roman city of Heliopolis, which means ‘City of the Sun’. When I see the sun shine warmly down on the still-standing columns from amongst the ancient ruins, I understand immediately how the city got its name.

We circle the ruins before turning a final corner to arrive at our destination – a safe play area for children run by our local partner and supported by Save the Children.

The car slows to a crawl as we pass dozens of children crowded around a long strip of white paper which is being used as a mural. With a plastic cup of multi-coloured paint in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, child after child turns to greet us with a wide smile and eyes full of curiosity.

Games and laughter

Others playing football on the other side of the road pause their match briefly, looking up to see who has arrived. At the end of the driveway, an animator leads a circle of children in a series of song-and-dance games that leave the children laughing and breathless.

You could be forgiven for forgetting these are children who have recently fled open conflict and been exposed to unimaginable horrors.

I get out and walk back to the mural, which has quickly filled up with paintings of families, trees, homes and brightly coloured hearts. I’m relieved to see that the vast majority of the images show love, peace and familiarity, but I also feel a pang when I think that these things are exactly what the children are missing.

Smiles give way to silence

Talking through gestures, I ask the children to show me what they have painted. One young girl pulls my arm and draws me towards her section of the mural. She dips her brush in a plastic cup of sunshine yellow and slowly but firmly paints a bright and brilliant heart.

Hands grab my arm, pulling me in all directions to show me their paintings, and I start moving down to check out other sections of the mural. Suddenly, the children stop in their tracks as a loud noise comes from overhead. One of the girls who had grabbed my arm points up to the sky, where a plane is passing above our heads.

The children have fallen silent and their smiles have disappeared. The plane makes its way across the sky, cutting through the blue canvas spattered by rays of sun. Images from the news flash through my head as I wonder what these children must have seen and heard to make them react this way to a passing plane.

Resilience shines through

It moves out of sight behind a building and the chatter starts up again, subdued at first but quickly returning to previous levels. I feel my arm being tugged and I’m pulled back to the canvas. The children have left their difficult memories behind for now, and have already turned their attention back to brighter things.

We can’t communicate through regular conversation. But today, in the City of the Sun, what shines through clearly to me through these children’s smiles and paintings is their incredible resilience. And I’m in awe.

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