Jeromie Whalen: Lessons in Lebanon

I woke up at 6:15 AM, took a quick shower, and headed off for school. As a high school teacher in Northampton, Massachusetts, it’s a familiar routine. For this early morning in July, however, it marked the start of another day I had the privilege of experiencing at the Jusoor Educational Center for Syrian Refugees. 

Founded in 2013 by Syrian expatriates, Jusoor Syria is a nonprofit that aims to offer education, career development and global community engagement opportunities to those impacted by the ongoing struggle at home. Their refugee programs have led to the creation of three education centers throughout Lebanon, the employment of more than 40 Syrian teachers, and the education of over 3,400 displaced students.

Our international entourage began every morning with a two-hour commute into the heart of Lebanon’s Bekaa region, a verdant agricultural valley nestled in the eastern part of the country approximately 10-15 miles from the Syrian border. The ride, while long, gave me time to revise my Google-translated lesson plans created the night before and prep for the day. 

My co-teacher, Ibrahim, and I started the day’s lesson by handing each student one of four colored cards with a number between zero and three written in permanent marker on the front. One by one, the groups stood in line and received a number of ornate glass stones that corresponded with their card. The entire bag stones had been purchased from a discount store for 1,500 lira — the equivalent of one U.S. dollar — but in appearance and context, they seemed priceless. 

As the students returned to their seats, some cupped a handful of treasures while others, looking at me and Ibrahim, seemed to be wondering if they, too, would receive this newly coveted prize. It was the end of our second week together, however, and the students knew me all too well. I cracked a smile, and some began to catch on. It was hard to get anything past this smart bunch.

Our neatly contained simulation of a world of have and have-nots was something many of these children had actually experienced. What started as a democratic revolution for Syrians in 2011 quickly became a story of brutal violence, oppression and tragedy that would come to claim more than 500,000 lives and displace millions more. Unable to bring any non-essential items with them, families left behind home and possessions to seek refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Germany, among other countries. The novelty of the glass stones is a marvel to any young student, but here it had added meaning. It was a token of sentiment that yielded more symbolic value than material worth, as if it could be both a small glimpse of what was lost and a vision of what the future could bring. 

After the students settled down, we began talking about what had just occurred. I asked the students who received three stones how they felt, to which they responded with gleeful smiles and replies. Two-stones were next: How do you feel? Do you wish you had three stones? Of course. By the time we had gotten to the zero-stone students, they explained they would have been content with even just one stone, a humble request for slightly more than their current situation allowed. I looked at Ibrahim, and we both nodded.

“Now we will take time to trade stones,” Ibrahim announced. “You may share all of your stones, some of your stones, or keep them all for yourself. The choice is entirely yours.” After several minutes of deliberation, the students finalized their decisions. Glancing around the room, the distribution of the stones had changed. Many three-stone students, realizing their wealth could help those less fortunate, gifted one stone to a zero-stone student. Stuck in a situation where gifting one stone meant swapping the wealth dynamic between themselves and others, movement between the two- and one-stone students remained stagnant. In the end, every group’s distribution was consistent with what one would typically expect.

Every group, that is, except one. 

When asked if there was any student who had zero stones, one student raised his hand. Out of the four students in his group, he had been the only one to make a transaction, gifting his one stone to another who had none. The students looked on, a bit perplexed at his decision. “Why did you transfer your one stone?” asked Ibrahim. Without hesitation, he answered. “It was simple for me,” he replied. “I saw he was sad, and no one deserves to be sad.”

No one deserves to be sad. No one deserves to live in constant fear of unpredictable and indiscriminate bombings and gunfire. To be ripped from their homes at night and never be seen again. To be tortured and murdered. To make the difficult decision to leave behind everything and flee home in exchange for a cramped tent made of shredded UN tarps. To toil in hot fields for pitiful wages. To be denied support when you need it most. 

As a teacher and resident of Northampton, I am proud of the initiative our city takes in welcoming refugee families into our community. Thanks to the work of Welcome Home Northampton and our proactive city officials, Northampton has been a place of safety and comfort for dozens of families over the years. It is my hope that we continue to welcome others with open arms, listen to their stories and appreciate their contributions to our collective societal perspective.

As a reward for his altruism, the student was given a generous handful of stones. A river of jewels glistened on his desk as sunlight entered the window. Considering how he was treated by his peers, would he share his newly acquired bounty or spite those who had chosen to spite him?

He looked for a moment at his newfound position of wealth and began calculating. He would not, in fact, share his stones with the group. He would share them with the entire class.

Everyone deserves their own glass stone.

Jeromie Whalen is a technology teacher at Northampton High School.