Salam Al-Masri was only 16 when she fled Syria in late 2010, shortly before the civil war there broke out. Traumatized after witnessing the murder of her two sisters by ISIS, Salam pushed through personal anguish to seek safety in Lebanon.
Salam knew she needed to claim new meaning for her life, or the trauma she had experienced would consume her. She resumed her studies in Lebanon and soon took a job tutoring students in Arabic and math. She also began attending trainings offered by Pastor Joseph, co-founder of TSI’s partner, Warm Heart Lebanon.
Now, at the age of 29, Salam is married, has three children and recently logged her eighth year with Warm Heart as a classroom teacher for Syrian refugee students at the mobile school.
“I love to work with kids. This is my passion; it’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” she said.
Salam is deeply dedicated to her work, particularly with Syrian girls.
“I’ve witnessed her passion,” said Rawan Haddad, TSI’s liaison to the Middle East. “She wants the girls to learn and take advantage of the opportunity to be in school. She wants them to do something with their lives, so she is very structured and direct with them.”
Salam’s job is not without its challenges. On some days, twice the number of students show up for class than she expected. School arrival and departure times vary due to traffic or road construction, and parents don’t want kids sent home late from school due to safety issues in Bekaa Valley camps. After a long day of classes, Salam must also spend time negotiating with parents about the value of education for their girls in a culture that would rather keep them home.
“Parents are not always educated, so I take care of the mom first so she can understand why her daughter or son needs the opportunity,” she said.
There are sad stories: the girl who disappeared from school after an early marriage at age 14 and was later kept home indefinitely due to shame surrounding her divorce one month later. “After that she had to be accompanied by a male relative wherever she went,” Salam said. “I tried to convince her to come back to school, but her family wouldn’t allow it. This broke my heart.”
There are hopeful stories, too. Seventeen-year-old Rania left her Bekaa Valley school at age 11 after mistreatment from other students and her teachers. Her younger sister was attending the Warm Heart school, but Rania refused to consider it after her negative experience. Salam kept calling and visiting the family, and weeks later Rania agreed to accompany her sister for one day. The next day, Rania told Salam that she wanted to come back.
“Now Rania is doing excellent,” said Salam. “Her behavior and academics have changed. She is trying to establish herself and go to university. I told her: you are not here by mistake. You need to have a purpose in your life. You are not ‘just a refugee’ waiting for help. Become something good and you will be successful in the future.”
Another Syrian girl, Shaima, worked hard at school until she was top of her class. To congratulate her, Warm Heart staff gifted her with a cellphone. “We had never done this before,” said Salam. “We wanted Shaima to receive the message: we care about you personally, and your education.
Pastor Joseph described Warm Heart’s purpose as the four legs of a chair: education, health, faith, and food. All of these things result in friendship with the children and their families. “I am always clear that I am sharing the gospel,” Pastor Joseph said. “The moms come to worship because they want to. We don’t force anyone to be involved [because their kids attend our school.]”
During the years she worked with refugee women and girls in Jordan before coming to the U.S., Haddad says she was devastated by stories like Salam’s. “I went home every day in tears. I couldn’t believe that such terrifying things happen among human beings.”
Salam’s story didn’t end in Syria, and now she works to ensure other girls have the same chance. As flawed humanity, we do shocking things to each other, especially in war. But as God’s people, we can meet the darkness with light and educate, heal, pray for and feed one another – the four legs of a support system based in love that will never collapse.
Our Light the Fire year-end campaign for 2023 will deliver safe schools to
displaced children in Jordan, Lebanon and Ukraine.
The mobile school in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – 2023
A vocational electrical class for Syrian girls in Lebanon, delivered by the mobile school.