Two years after the war started in Syria, I was 17 years old. Like now, I lived in Damascus.
I remember writing the exams that I needed to pass to start university when I heard the sounds of war outside.
My eyes were on the paper, but my mind was occupied with my mother. Like many other parents, she had come with me to the center where I was taking the test and wouldn’t go back home until I had finished.
I was confused. Should I finish and go out early so she didn’t have to wait so long outside? Or should I finish the exam and get the result that I worked hard for the whole year?
I did finish the exam; we were safe, and I went on to university. I became a dentist, but life was always uncertain.
During the war, any small plans we made were at risk of being canceled, even just hanging out with our friends. We might want to go, but then something would happen at the last minute — like a mortar shell falling. Everything would be canceled and we stayed where we were. The instability and lack of safety were continuous and threatening.
The work I do to help children in my community is a way of living out my principles."
- George Sarkis
These events have created an intimacy among us. People I didn’t expect to hear from one day would call me and say, “How are you? We heard that something has fallen near your university.” Among family, it created nervousness but also the chance to gather and care for each other. Many families which were probably broken before gathered together more closely. Simultaneously it created a continuous state of fear.
This environment affected the children, too. Since high school, I had worked with children within my church, the National Evangelical Church in Damascus, to offer spiritual support. As the crisis continued, the children needed psychosocial support too.
If we take a child who is 18 now, what are the things that he has grown up with? He has grown up with his parents worrying about him being injured by mortar shells whenever he goes out. They are anxious at home as they hear mortars falling while their children prepare for bed.
In 2015, the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches initiated the Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS) project in Damascus. It was independent from the church so that all children in the area felt welcome, regardless of their religion.
I have been serving as program coordinator while still working as a dentist.
In CFS, we provide children with activities to make them think as a team, so they do not think they are alone, but one person in a group of people. We help children learn about their personalities and encourage them to have a healthy view of themselves.
We ask children to clean, paint and plant so they feel that they can contribute in this place. If they do so, they feel like they belong and feel comfortable. We also talk about ways of becoming active in society as a child.
I wanted more training about trauma, so I took a STAR training that MCC offered in Lebanon. (STAR, which stands for Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience, is a program of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.)
I thought that I was going to learn how to deal with other people around me.
It turned out that it was about how I should deal with myself. As I thought about situations that I have been through, I understood what was happening to me, what step of trauma I was in and how to get through the healing steps. Of course, I shared this information with our CFS team as a way to understand our children’s problems and challenges.
I thought that I was going to learn how to deal with other people around me. It turned out that it was about how I should deal with myself. "
- George Sarkis
My experience in STAR encouraged me to participate in any workshop conducted by MCC. I took another training about a curriculum to support traumatized children. In this training I learned more about how to help a child move from identifying trauma into healing.
At the beginning, our target was providing psychosocial support to children who are psychiatrically harmed. Today we have to start a new phase that is related to recovery. The children who passed through the crisis, how are they going to mingle in society again, to accept the things that occurred?
I ask myself, Where are we going? Not in the program but as a country. My long-term wish for the children is that they may have a good future and opportunities, to have security and to have aspirations for their lives.
Being a dentist was my dream, and it is my career. The work I do to help children in my community is a way of living out my principles. Believing in God and the purpose we are here for motivates me to accept all the challenges of the humanitarian work I do and to give more to children or needy people.
George Sarkis was part of MCC-supported trainings on trauma awareness and healing. He is a dentist and lead coordinator of a program to provide activities and healing to children who have experienced war.