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Peace flags continue to connect campers, refugees

Irene Willis spent a day introducing the Syrian Peace Flag Ministry to junior high campers at Pilgrim Firs in July.  


Syrian refugee students show flags they are taking home. Photo courtesy of Irene Willis

She brought flags made by Syrian refugees in northern Jordan. She put the flags up so campers could see them.  She explained the project, which began last year at N-Sid-Sen.

“The flags the Syrians sent were ‘Peace Flags.’ N-Sid-Sen campers had sent ‘Prayer Flags’ with prayers of love and hope,” said Irene.  

Nousha, director of the camp in Jordan, asked Syrian youth to think about what peace might mean.  They sent representations of that.  

Their flags were variations of the Syrian rebel flag with flowers, hearts and religious phrases. They now are at N-Sid-Sen, delivered by Tony Kliment, senior high aqua camp director.

Irene spoke in the morning and showed a video she had shown N-Sid-Sen campers the previous year.  She thought the Pilgrim Firs teens were overwhelmed by the information or bored, having no investment in the project.

“Youth today in the Information Age can see everything that happens in the world instantly through Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media,” she noted.   

“I gave these campers a list of compassionate, common phrases in Arabic and said they could write their messages in English or Arabic,” Irene said.

They tie-dyed the flags.  

Concerned the campers had not understood the project, she did a follow up after lunch.  She asked each camper to write five things that make up their identity.  Then she invited them to share.  

“Soccer,” one ventured.   

“No,” Irene replied. ”If anyone has a sports team or a club as an identity marker, cross that off.  You don’t have school programs any more.”

Intrigued, more hands raised.  ”My family.”

“Nope, gone. You were separated from your family when the forces invaded your home and killed your father.  Cross it off.”

”I have arms!” one said.

“No, those were blown off in an air raid.”   

They continued until most had nothing left on their papers.  

“This is how it feels to be a refugee in Syria,” Irene said.  “You don’t have any of those things any more. What do you have now?”   

The students began talking.


“Yes,” I said. “Hope is by definition something that occurs. So you have hope.  Hope in what? Who or what cultivates your hope into a future?”


“Yes, but how?  Who tells you God is listening?  Who speaks for God?” Silence. “Does ISIS speak for God?”


“They explicitly claim they do. They are instigators of hope are they not?” Silence.  

”Is there another way to find hope?”

Irene divided the campers into groups to talk about how they would feel in that situation. The American students agreed that groups like ISIS shouldn’t be allowed to hijack hope.  They wanted Syrian youth to feel cared for by people other than terrorists.   

When Irene returned to the Syrian border two weeks later, she had a large package of prayer flags, colorfully decorated with messages of hope, peace and solidarity.

She said little at the Syrian school about the Pilgrim Firs youth. It was her first time meeting these Syrian children, so she spent time getting to know them.  

The N-Sid-Sen flags were still strung up on the walls.  

“I sang some songs with them and helped them learn to write their names in Arabic because their regular teacher was ill,” she said.   

At the end of the school day, she took out the flags from the Pilgrim Firs. Instead of stringing them up, she gave them individually to children based on the flags’ messages.

She held up a flag and said, “This one says ‘hope’ in English.” Some children wanted specific words. One girl wanted a flag that said “Peace” in Arabic. A boy wanted a flag that said “Hope” in English.

“They were enthusiastic to learn English words for concepts meaningful to them, and to have something personal that was made lovingly just for them,” Irene said.  “I bet that in some hillside tent city in Northern Jordan, a few dozen Syrian refugee children keep the flags among their sparse belongings, shining as a small heartbeat of empathy in a tide of silence from the outside world.”

The campers also wrote long, heartfelt letters in English to the Syrian youth. She left them for older youth (ages 13-16), who are learning English, to translate. Some of them are talented graffiti artists and want her to send their art next time.

In Northern Jordan, a school funded by donations is a new addition to the Project Amal ou Salam project.   

Syrians in Jordan are only to be educated at the UN schools in internment camps on the border, and they are not to go on to a university.   

“In this context, Project Amal ou Salam’s opening a middle-high school in the boonies is revolutionary.” Irene said.

Aside from needing money, the school is not registered in the Jordanian system so it can’t grant diplomas or transcripts.  

Irene is working to register that school and the other Project Amal ou Salam schools as international schools.  If students are proficient in English, they could attend a university, if they have scholarships from other countries and can leave Jordan to study.   

“The Syrian children I met, despite their circumstances, retain hope and courage.  It’s a miracle.  Not that they’re not also deeply sad and traumatized, they just haven’t given up,” said Irene, adding, “I hope our camp children don’t give up on them.   

“We as Christians can’t ever lose sight of what God is calling us to become in God’s Kingdom, no matter how bleak it feels sometimes,” she said.

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Copyright © September/October 2015 - Pacific Northwest UCC Conference News


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