life begins where the comfort zone ends

a girl and a poem

It’s over three weeks since my return from Jordan, where I was reporting on Syrian refugees for Volkskrant, De Correspondent, Parool and Nieuwe Revu. In the meantime I already spent a week in BC, Canada. But the images and memories from Jordan are still in my head and my heart. So I have to tell you something.

Za'atari refugee camp was like a tornado of emotions and feelings. I met hundreds of people, had stones thrown at my head, ate sumptuous meals in illegal restaurants, found some great new friends and was awed by the enormous resilience of the 140.000 refugees here... Each and every encounter was impressive and intense. But some of them were even more than that. Meeting Safa'a was a moment I’ll never forget.

Together with reporter Rinke Verkerk I spent one day photographing  the children in the camp for a report in Dutch daily Het Parool . Safa'a was one of the children we met - just randomly, somewhere in the camp. And whenever I think back of that encounter, I get tears in my eyes. Boy, did she touch me…

Here's what happened. 

The conversation Rinke had with Safa'a was not really smooth. Short answers, silences. Safa'a was a little uncomfortable. Rinke asked her a few questions about school. What is your favorite subject? 'Arabic,' Safa'a replied. Do you also write, Rinke asked. ‘Yes,’ she replied. So what do you write? ‘Poems,’ said Safa'a. Rinke was surprised. ‘How nice! Would you know one by heart? No, that was asking too much. But then Safa’a took a little piece of paper out of her pocket, and began to read. 

Calm down, wait, calm down
Because we are far away from home

Send my peace and my love
To our country, where we grew up

Send the birds in our country my greetings
Because they will sing when we get home

Greet our lemon trees, greet my family
Who raised me, sang to me, taught me life

My mother can still smell the scent of her bed at home
Greet my neighbors, my beloved

Salute all the brave people, bow down to our last strength

Which we give collectively for our country

It was an incredible moment. Safa’a really concentrated on doing well while reading her text, so I guess she hasn’t seen my tears. Or maybe she did. It doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is that her poem - along with the stories of other children - was published this Saturday in Het Parool (check out the article here ). And now - because of this publication - her poem will be part of the Tribute to Peace concert from Dutch popstar Trijntje Oosterhuis,  this Sunday in the garden of the Peace Palace . A fancy operation, together with the Hague Philharmonic. UNICEF also contacted me; they picked up the story and want to share it. Just how nice is that?

Thijs Heslenfeld