Imagine It . . .
Imagine it: the wind outside has a slight bite to it. It is heralding in the reign of winter which will bring frost and cold and, yes, even snow. The dirt fields baked hard and dry by the summer suns will receive the gentle blanket of snow as winter descends.
That chill seeps in through the concrete or mud blocks of the home where you live, and finally you are thankful for the thick heavy rugs and blankets lining the walls. Now, as the early morning light starts to filter in through the windows and open doorways out in the hallway, you snuggle down into your thin mattress a little tighter, trying your very best to hold onto the sweet tendrils of sleep.
Sleep is your living paradox these days. Some nights it is the sweetest escape, the only place where warmth, the kind that eases the tension in your heart, and laughter feel real and genuine, where you feel free and can forget. But the other nights it seems the darkness will never end and you will never again feel fully human. They are swarming with monsters and you feel more exhausted when you wake then when you fell asleep.
But this morning, as the cold wiggles its way into your blankets, your eyes pop open, and a glimmer of excitement enters them. You fold up your blankets as best as you can and pull on a sweater over your long-sleeved tee-shirt.
You wrestle your brother over a pair of slippers and hop into the kitchen to warm up by the boiling tea pot. There is a loaf of bread left over from last night’s dinner, and you happily tear into it, dancing around the little stove in an effort to warm up.
Your mom is already sweeping the floor, and your father is having is second cigarette of the day in the doorway, watching the way the sun sweeps across the valley. There are mountains off in the distance, and just yesterday you heard the rumbles of airstrikes in Mosul, just miles away behind the mountain where the village you now call ‘home’ is nestled.
Your older brother left over an hour ago for the long walk to school in a refugee camp on the edge of the town nearby. But you aren’t able to walk far enough and your family doesn’t have access to a car. The news broke your heart when you learned that yet again you’d be sitting out of school. You should be in the third grade this year, but you have only finished one year of school before your family ran in the night away from your village in the mountain.
ISIS fighters had infiltrated your town and at first it seemed everything might be okay, but it wasn’t long before they started threatening your relatives and the only safe route was out of the village and into the mountains. You stayed there for nearly 10 days, drinking water that you found on leaves and rationing out the handful of snacks that your mom had managed to stuff in her bag.
Tears sting your eyes every time you think back to that night, the last time you saw your best friend, waving from your car window as her family packed their own car and set out a different direction. You remember the deep pit that formed in your stomach when you looked down and realized you’d left your treasured doll on top of the table inside the door.
But right now you brushed all of those thoughts from your mind as you stood in the doorway breathing in the chilled morning air. Excitement hung on the breeze this morning, because you were going to school!
No, not the school in the camp, and not one where you had a uniform and text books, but a school nonetheless. A school where you gathered with the other 50 kids from the village, and huddled together on mattresses on a concrete floor. Teachers from the town would come in, hang a whiteboard on a string fixed to the wall, and the lessons would begin. There would be songs, and stories, art lessons and practice with English and Kurdish and Arabic. You would sit and giggle with your friends, and take selfies with the teachers. You would, for two hours, feel like everything was normal again, life was worth living for and somehow, there would be light at the end of this ever so dark tunnel.
It would be the thing you waited for all week, the one event by which you could mark your days. Your teachers would become like surrogate aunts and uncles, and the confidence you gain by standing proudly and completing tasks your childhood was meant for would begin to change the trajectory of what had become a dark, oppressed, and fearful life. For once you would start to see that maybe, just maybe, you could do something, be something, someone. You could make a difference. You could help elevate your family out of this hellish hole you had all fallen in two years ago.
Imagine now that your entire dream falls apart because that winter wind is knocking, and in your village, the village where another 50 kids are huddled in their cold concrete homes waiting for the day they can ‘resume’ life, there is no suitable shelter in which to gather and learn.
When the cold wind licks at your face as you lay under your blankets, you moan and roll over, wishing sleep would steal a few more moments of the day. The day when you will rise and yet again have nothing meaningful to do. You’ll help with the sweeping, carry things from mother to father and father to mother. You’ll care for your baby brother. But all the while your eyes will look in the distance, over the mountains and through that last pass back to your village where the school house sat on the side of the road, back through the years before all of this happened to when you were free, a child, a human. Back when you’d with pride teach the letters to your beloved doll when you returned home from lessons, sure that your future was bright with promise.
The barriers to education are real. Some of them are immense and beyond our control, like war going on only miles away. But others are so simple and scalable, like adding walls to a pavilion, that it seems tragic to let them stand in the way of building a brighter and better future for the kids and communities affected by those open walls.