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Aqua campers send messages of peace to Syrian refugees

Project made campers aware of children
in refugee camps in the Middle East

Pacific Northwest 2014 junior high aqua campers made connections for peace in Syria last summer and recently saw photos of Syrian children with prayer flags they had made and sent through the Amal ou Salam project.

nousha with prayer flags

Nousha Kabawat, director of Project Amal ou Salam, displays prayer flags made by junior high aqua campers in 2014 at a refugee camp for Syrian children.  Photo courtesy of Dana Sprenkle

Dana Sprenkle, who directed the camp with John Hubbe, both of Shalom UCC in Richland, shared a Facebook post with 11 photos from the refugee camp for Syrian children in Raymun, Irbid, Jordan.

Irene Willis Hassan, who has been a counselor and chaplain for junior high aqua camps at N-Sid-Sen for seven years, also originally from Shalom Richland, made the connection possible. 

During her studies for a master of divinity degree, which she completed in 2013 at Boston University School of Theology, she worked with two organizations on peace projects in the Middle East.  The Arab Spring started when she was in graduate school and she wanted to learn more.

She first worked with the MEJDI Tourism Company, which brings together the conflicting parties, Israelis and Palestinians, to lead tours.

prayer flags

N-Sid-Sen campers use prayer flags in worship before sending them. Photo courtesy of Dana Sprenkle

Through MEJDI, she did a pilot project as pastoral care manager for a three-week visit at a government-sponsored UN refugee prison camp on the Turkish-Syrian border.  She helped prepare and debrief 36 graduate students in conflict resolution at George Mason University. The students experienced trauma as they saw and learned about refugee children in schools and camps.  Irene helped them adjust and cope.

Many orphan refugee children, who lost limbs or part of their faces, have little contact with others.  Some live in tents and stare at rocks or walls. 

Now Project Amal ou Salam (Hope and Peace), led by a 25-year-old Syrian Christian woman, Nousha Kabawat, and a Palestinian, Aziz Abu Sarah, the founder of MEJDI tours, organizes day camps for refugee children to take them away for a short time “from the hellish situations they live in at the UN camps.”  The day camps, which teach  photography, reading, writing and sports, are held twice a year each in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. 

Willis and Hassan

Irene and Hamzah Hassan Photo courtesy of Irene Willis

Irene, who has been involved in the project for two years debriefing student teams, now mostly does advocacy and raises funds.

To better communicate with the children, she decided to move to Jordan two years ago to learn Arabic.  She asked a friend in Boston to give her a contact in Jordan.  It was Hamzah Hassan, a cell-phone store manager who became her husband a year ago. They knew each other six months before they married, because  it’s not okay to date there, she said.

volunteer with prayer flags

Prayer flags on display at refugee camp in Jordan.

In Jordan, Irene has taught eighth grade and preschool, and opened a Montessori primary school with MEJDI friends. She worked with refugee children from Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt.

Last summer, she returned for junior high aqua camp at N-Sid-Sen and explored with the directors a way to bridge the misunderstandings between American youth and refugee children in the Middle East.

In the Middle East, 50 to 65 percent of the population are young people, under the age of 24, angry with the West for destroying their economy.

“The young people have energy, but no place to put it with no jobs or money.  They live in countries rich with oil resources exploited and controlled by the West,” said Irene.

“U.S. young people need a better understanding of living in a globalized world, especially in this time when people can talk on internet,” she said. 

She also wanted to counteract negative images of Americans who come to Jordan with the United Nations or other programs for refugee relief. 

“Many come with good intentions, but some have the idea that they are white saviors,” Irene said. “What many of them do creates more problems and political divisions.

“I just wanted to help American youth understand life there, so I took an opportunity at aqua camp,” she said.

Mary Lu and John Hubbe suggested making prayer flags to take to Syrian children at a refugee camp.

So the 70 junior high aqua campers made prayer flags, which are not a critical resource the refugee children might fight over.

“The prayer flags simply say that youth here are aware and care,” said Irene.

She sent them to Nousha who took them to a camp in March in Jordan and took pictures.  Some of the youth wrote letters back, because they are learning English.

One letter said:  “Hello Friend, How you?  You are friends.  Are you safe?”

Irene will bring a display to Annual Meeting, sharing about the project to help raise money for it.  She will take letters and prayer flags the refugee children and youth sent back and then take them to aqua camp this summer.

“It’s good for our campers to be pen pals with refugee children and youth.  Originally, I did not think if it would be good for Syrian children.  I wanted youth at our camps to be globally minded, to think of their futures as people of God doing what Jesus wants.”

Children in the camps in Syria are Muslim and Christian.

“When we made the prayer flags, I taught the youth at N-Sid-Sen some Arabic phrases, sayings about God, about loving one another.  Many chose to write in Arabic, as well as in English.

Irene also showed the campers videos of children in the Turkish refugee camp.

She then divided campers into conversation groups where even awkward 12-year-olds brainstormed about different ways to help.

The N-Sid-Sen campers told their parents, who along with youth and members at Shalom Richland UCC, raised $1,676 for the Amal ou Salam project for Syrian refugee children.

Irene returned to Washington in February and is settling in Bellevue, where she is looking for work in refugee resettlement, social justice projects with churches and church youth groups as she prepares for ordination in the Pacific Northwest Conference.

For information, contact Dana at 509-308-2856 or email


Copyright © April 2015 - Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ Conference News


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