Nawfal’s story

Nawfal writes his name in the author’s notebook.

UNHCR/Bathoul Ahmed

The Forgetting

Eight-year-old Nawfal has impeccable handwriting. But without school, he may soon become part of a lost generation.

Nawfal’s story
  • Written by
    Bathoul Ahmed
18 December 2014 18 December 2014
Syria Lebanon

Eight-year-old Nawfal can write. His handwriting is perfect. But in a few years, he will forget. His beautiful script will be nothing but a distant memory.

I am lucky to have a job that allows me to speak out. It allows me to write this and share it with you. It allows me to speak for those who would otherwise not be heard.

Today, I would like to speak for Nawfal.

Nawfal is just a boy. Two months ago he fled Raqqa, Syria, with much of his family – leaving his father behind. He now lives in an informal settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Like so many thousands of other children here, Nawfal doesn’t go to school.

Nawfal, 8, writes a message in the author's notebook. It reads, in part, “I love school so much. I want to go back to Syria.” UNHCR/Bathoul Ahmed

UNHCR/Bathoul Ahmed
Nawfal, 8, writes a message in the author's notebook. It reads, in part, “I love school so much. I want to go back to Syria.”

He tugs on my sleeve one evening, as I’m walking through one of the country’s 1,417 settlements at sunset. Although it may seem mundane to you, his question stops me in my tracks.

“What’s your book about?” he asks.

I carry this same notepad everywhere I go, but never have I been asked about it.

“This is a notepad,” I tell him, smiling. “I write things in it. Do you want to see?”

He reaches over to touch the words on the page, almost caressing them. “I can’t write in English, but I can write in Arabic,” he says, quietly, as he examines my neat scrawl.

Eleven-year-old Hanan (right) teaches other young refugees to write in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. She’s the closest thing they have to a teacher, so they call her ‘Miss Hanan’. UNHCR/Lynsey Addario

UNHCR/Lynsey Addario
Eleven-year-old Hanan (right) teaches other young refugees to write in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. She’s the closest thing they have to a teacher, so they call her ‘Miss Hanan’.

“Can you write me something,” I ask, “so I can remember you every time I read it?”

His face lights up. I am curious to see what he will write – to find out what thoughts are going through his young mind. But then he hesitates. Perhaps he isn’t sure what he should write, or maybe he hasn’t written in such a long time that he is nervous.

I give him the notepad and ask him to write anything he wants. Whatever comes to mind.

His small hand flutters across the page, his face intent. Then he pauses, looks up at me and smiles, as though seeking reassurance, before he carries on writing.

Rahaf, 10, plays with her younger siblings in Shatila, a poor neighbourhood in Beirut. She hasn’t been to class since the day a bomb fell on her school in Syria, killing 13 fellow students. UNHCR/Shawn Baldwin

UNHCR/Shawn Baldwin
Rahaf, 10, plays with her younger siblings in Shatila, a poor neighbourhood in Beirut. She hasn’t been to class since the day a bomb fell on her school in Syria, killing 13 fellow students.

I ask what he misses the most about home. “I miss my school,” he replies. “I’ve never missed a day of school in Syria. I miss my books the most. I miss reading.”

Nawfal is a gentle little boy. In a crowd of rowdy children, he stands back and quietly observes. He doesn’t say much. But I promise you: If you had seen him that day, and if you had the courage to look into his eyes, you would cry just as I did when I got home. I wish you could have seen his eyes and sensed his defeat. When I looked at Nawfal I felt shame. Embarrassment. As human beings, we should never have occasion to see any one of us at such a loss.

Nawfal might be alive – but he is not living. He just exists.

Like the other kids in the settlement, he loiters much of the day. Children play outside amongst the rubbish, open sewers and mud. They have no toys, no playground and nothing to do.

Syrian girls play near an abandoned factory in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Access to education is limited, so many refugee children here work, peeling garlic, to help support their families. UNHCR/Dalia Khamissy

UNHCR/Dalia Khamissy
Syrian girls play near an abandoned factory in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Access to education is limited, so many refugee children here work, peeling garlic, to help support their families.

These scattered informal settlements are in no way dignified. UNHCR and other agencies try their best to make their living conditions better – by providing clean water, latrines and other basic assistance, such as weather-proofing kits to help strengthen the tents, especially during winter. However, as these settlements are not properly planned or managed, they offer less-than-adequate living conditions. The smell of sewage lingers in the air. It is almost suffocating. Flies swarm over heaps of rubbish, and the ground is muddy following heavy rain.

Despite the tough circumstances, Nawfal and his family are now safe in Lebanon. They are some of the 3.3 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in the region. But, what scares me is how used we are getting to these numbers going up. We cannot let our collective conscience rest simply because these people got out of Syria safe and sound. These people are stuck in limbo. They have few opportunities in exile. Hundreds of thousands of children are out of school. Countless families have depleted their savings, and parents are struggling to make a living.

Nawfal and his family struggle every day. Couldn’t Nawfal be any one of us? Your son, or maybe your little brother? None of what is happening is his fault. He wants to go to school and read books. He doesn’t want to be here. Like anybody, Nawfal has dreams.

I will never be able to capture the innocence of this kid, the purity in his smile and the joy on his face as he holds my pen and writes. In Lebanon alone, over 200,000 children are out of school. Almost four years into the Syria crisis and with no end in sight, I’m scared that this sweet little boy will never get to go back home. I’m scared that he will forget how to write.

Today, I carry with me the words of Nawfal as a reminder of why we do the work we do, and a reminder of how much more the world needs to do.

My name is Nawfal.
I want to be in school.
I love school so much.
I want to go back to Syria.
I want to see my family in Syria.
Daddy, I won’t forget you.

His words will stay with me forever. A painful memory of a child robbed of his childhood.