The Story of Moumena
By Nishi Shah
Moumena is an English teacher and the principal of the Wisdom House Kindergarten for orphans. Here is her story in her own words:
My name is Moumena. I am a teacher from Idlib, Syria.
When the Syrian revolution began, I was in my last year of college studying English in a literature program at al-Baath University in Homs. I continued my studies until the end of the year — despite the very tough circumstances that we faced from the security forces of the Assad regime. They used to chase all of the university students to find out if any of us were active in or somehow related to the Syrian revolution. At the time I didn’t want to leave the city of Homs, but when the revolution began regime security forces began firing bullets on peaceful protesters. Once, I was going to present my paper for a subject I was studying, live fire almost killed me. This happened even though I was trying to avoid the streets that had the protests in them. I was really scared.
Due to these circumstances, I returned to my town in Idlib Province, where the revolution was very much alive. When I left Homs, we were obviously running away from the Assad regime security forces. I left my home, all of our stuff, even my books. I left everything and I hoped that I could come back very, very soon. But the conflict has made that dream impossible. All the people in my city were calling for an end to dictatorship from this regime.
The first day after running away from Homs to Idlib, there was a huge protest in the city of Maaret an-Numan. The security forces were shooting live bullets at the peaceful protestors from the Maraa Bridge, which is the bridge at the entrance of the city. The shooting resulted in the injury of many protestors and everyone started running away in every random direction to get away from the live fire.
Thank God that on that day, despite the injuries, no one died. After that day we started organizing protests for men and women. Of course in the beginning, the demonstrations and protests were on a daily basis. However, after months and months passed, the regime continued to kill us. No officials resigned. There was no sign of transition. The detentions increased and the killings escalated, and the protests happened on a weekly basis. Every Friday people would come out to demonstrate and we would name each Friday by a different name. For example, one of the Fridays we designated the “we will not kneel” Friday to show that we would not bow to the regime. These hopeful days were “Freedom Fridays.”
The beginning of the revolution was truly an honorable beginning in every sense of the word. We came out calling for our freedom, a freedom that had been taken away by the regime. I personally hated the regime because it was putting handcuffs on what we could do in terms of expressing our own religion. For example they would force me to take the veil off when I entered the university. I am a woman who chooses to wear a veil and beyond that situation there are many other examples too. Another example is that when I registered for high school, I was forced to join the Baath Party against my own will. This happened to everyone else as well.
After an entire year of the revolution had passed, there were a lot of security forces that would come and go inside homes. They would chase and arrest people, especially anyone who came out to any of the demonstrations, although many youth, whether they came out in demonstrations or not, were also being arrested by the security forces. The military burnt down homes and the security forces of the Assad regime just terrorized the general population.
I started working as a teacher. I had dreamed from a young age that I would grow up to be an English teacher and translator. But the horrible conditions that I endured during my university studies did not give me the opportunities to accomplish my dreams and I ended up teaching very young children an English-based curriculum based on my limited understanding of the language.
At first, I worked in my own home, because at the beginning of the revolution there were many airstrikes that targeted schools. All the teachers were thinking that if they went on strike from going to teach at the schools, they could help pressure the regime to fall or transition to a democracy, and we could get done with all that was happening.
Soon after, I got involved with Wisdom House because people were asking for a teacher who is highly skilled who could come to help with the forming of the school. Everybody in town knew about my good teaching skills, especially with children because I do my best to take care of their needs and pay a lot of attention to them. There are many children who have a very hard time focusing on their studies because of the violence they have seen and the terrible trauma they suffer daily including the trauma of losing their families, losing their mothers and fathers, and becoming orphans. As a teacher, I like to try to “become” the child I am teaching and strive to be both their mother and their teacher. That is how I approached my mission working for Wisdom House.
In my opinion, so far there hasn’t been a normal day for us. By normal I mean days like the ones before the war. Before the war the kids were always happy. They worried only about their studies, playtime, and field trips. But now, with the shadow of the war over us, any time a plane flies overhead it is terrifying. We constantly hear the bombardment, shelling, and airstrikes around us.
A good day for the kids is when they don’t hear an airplane or they don’t hear a bombardment. That makes them happy. We have not gone a day since the first day the Wisdom House opened without hearing some explosion or plane fly over. This is because our area is very close to the front lines of the war. One time, someone slammed a door shut in the school and some of the kids in my class were terrified. They all started asking me, “Is this an airstrike, teacher? Is this a bomb from a plane?”
At that moment I was so sad at the conditions and the life that we live. I couldn’t do anything except try to calm their hearts and take away their fears. I told them it was just a door that was slammed and it is not an airstrike from an airplane. I said we must focus on our studies regardless of the situation, and we must seek God’s help to continue to protect us.
When I teach the kids I always try to have activities that will keep them focused on their studies. I try to make their homework and their courses like a game so they are completely absorbed by what we are working on and can be distracted from the war. For example, whenever we are studying a specific letter from the alphabet I will write the letter with a specific color and color the letter on a balloon. Then one of the students will go up and pop the balloon and the letter falls out of it.
I do what I can to try to give them normal days that take them away from the war that we live in. As far as my relationship and my interaction with the students it is important to remember that we all — including me — need emotional support and therapy. Everyone here, the young and the old, need both emotional and psychological support. Many times we hear normal sounds from nature that we are all terrified of, especially in the winter. Whenever we hear thunder, we think it is a ground-to-ground missile that is coming for us.
For this reason, I try to take care of every student personally. I help him or her and I give them care and attention as if they were my own sons or daughters. I feel that my students, many of them orphans, look at me and treat me as their mother. For example, one time after I had finished a class, a little girl who had lost her mother came up to me and she said, “Oh teacher, I really love you.”
At that very moment I felt that for the time being I had been able to replace her mother that she lost in the war. There are so many other examples. When the students come to me and tell me their secrets that makes me happy. I always try to give them good advice and be there for them.
When students come to school with new clothes on and they come to me and they say, “Oh teacher, look at me, I am wearing new shoes!” and I always tell them how wonderful their shoes are and how beautiful the new clothes are. I say how proud I am of them and that they are wearing the most beautiful clothes. Another time, a little girl came up to me and told me “please braid my hair teacher” and again I felt that I was a mother and a teacher at the same time. I never ignore or look away from any student, because to me every student is my daughter or son and I wish for them the happiest life away from these horrible conditions of war.
Though many moments are sad, since I am a teacher every single day that I go to the Wisdom House is a happy day. The Wisdom House is the only source of my happiness after my husband and family. There are so many situations with my kids, and I call them my kids not my students, that really give happiness to my heart. A lot of my little daughters give me gifts during the holidays or teachers’ day to show me how much they love me. Even though I tell them all the time that I love every one of them and I don’t need anything from them except for them to study hard so they can be very successful in life. There are some days that are filled with such happiness and joy I will never forget them.
For example, last year we did an activity where we all made tabbouleh salad — it is a salad that has a lot of different vegetables — and all the kids in the Wisdom House were so happy that they started giving kisses to their teachers. Many people who take care of these kids reached out to us to thank us for our work and for making these kids love to study and go to school.
There was a moment that I feel was very painful but also funny at the same time: one time when we were running away from the town because of bombardments and airstrikes. This was the first time we had to leave our village after 67 airstrikes on our tiny town and the towns around us, back in January of 2018. Eventually we came back to the Wisdom House and all the students were telling me their stories of displacement and how they had met new friends and some were very intrigued by the experience that they went through. Of course their stories may not have seemed interesting to others, and some may not listen to them, butI was so interested in what they thought about their experience of being displaced. I was really happy that they were really keen to talk to me as if I was a very close friend or family member. They loved to tell me about everything that happened to them.
I could speak for a long time about the horrific things that we have been through. But I thank God always for everything and God willing relief will come soon. As far as my village is concerned, from the very beginning we were hearing the sounds of the airplanes and the helicopters and the Russian air force that were doing a huge military offense on the nearby countryside of Khan Sheikhoun and the areas around it. And I don’t want to hide from you that we were hoping and sure that the Turks were with us heart to heart and they would not allow the Assad Regime’s army to make advances on the ground, not even an inch. And we were thinking that Khan Sheikhoun could be protected. But we did not know that the people we trusted were not really going to help. After the regime took over Khan Sheikhoun, it did not have a hard time to continue its terrorist campaign on Maaret an-Numan and its eastern periphery.
The campaign only intensified, with the constant presence of military aircraft overhead. They would come out from about 7:30 in the morning and would not continue their attacks over our village until 8:00 at night. And the situation became worse and worse. Women and children couldn’t even handle being in this situation and watching the horrific bombardment of their village. So we had no other choice than to leave our home. We left our homes in al-Ghadfa for the last time in January 2020.
When we left our village, our souls remained in it. We could not eat or drink for about two days as we traveled, and we couldn’t even do it if we wanted to. How could we? When we were leaving our homes where we lived all of our lives in, where we laughed, and where we were happy. It was heartbreaking.
We came to the western countryside of Aleppo. All of the sudden, the regime started yet another battle in western Aleppo Province. The same scenario started all over again: barrel bombs dropping, cluster bombs, missiles, terrorism, and fear. We were terrorized.
If you could only hear the airplanes as they are about to shoot its missiles, your heart would drop out of your chest just out of fear of the sound. It’s terrifying. How can anyone not be afraid if they hear the sound of an airplane getting closer and louder. When it launches its missiles, it is as if it is coming directly to where you are sitting. and there’s nothing for you to do. You can do nothing except find a wall and put your back to it or wait by a strong foundation in the house that you are in and make your last prayers and pray to God for help.
But what’s worse is whenever you see the helicopter dropping an explosive barrel bomb, you see it as if it’s coming right to you. You see it falling down on top of your head, and you hear a loud whistling noise as it’s going through the air. It’s truly truly terrifying. It’s probably more terrifying than when it explodes, and then you see the huge explosion. You see the dirt and the smoke completely surrounding you from every direction, and you have nothing to do except ask and call around, “Where’s my father? Where’s my mother? Where are my brothers or sisters? Where is my husband? Where’s my uncle?” The only thing that comes to mind is all the things that are most dear to your heart- the things that you love the most. These are all horrific situations to have lived in.
When the shelling and the bombardment started in the western countryside of Aleppo, we got all of our stuff and we once again had to be displaced. We went towards the northern countryside of Aleppo near Azaz, close to the border with Turkey. This is an area under Turkish protection. Here, we don’t hear as much- the bombardment and the missiles – but our hearts break with sadness over the fate of our town and our homes. Here, we suffer from the lack of homes, or housing, or a roof to stay under. Imagine, the western countryside of Aleppo and the countryside of Idlib. The vast majority of the people displaced by the regime from all over Syria are here now in these areas. Alongside us are the displaced from Homs and Hama and Damascus countryside and Daraa. All of us are now here in this area. Imagine that we stay with more than seven families in a home that is essentially two rooms. Twenty-four people in these two rooms. The first room is about 4 meters by 5 meters and the second room is three meters by four meters, without electricity.
God is our only help. There are many videos of my town and the destruction in it. Today, my town is under the complete control of Bashar al-Assad.
Still, I love my work as a teacher in the Wisdom House. The current conditions at Wisdom House are actually very good, excellent in comparison to other schools in the area. There are people who support us, the American people. I want to give my sincere thanks to them and I really want to thank Mouaz Moustafa and Natalie Larrison and the many Americans who have stood by us through this horrible crisis. They have faithfully stood by us, helped us, and supported us both emotionally and financially. So in my name and in the name of all of the teachers I want to give my sincere thanks to the American people for all their help.
Finally, I want to thank God most of all because he has helped me become a teacher despite all the obstacles.