No matter who they are or what their circumstances might be, children are children. It doesn’t take much to make them smile — and don’t they all love to play and learn?
Child refugees from Syria are like our kids in many ways. For, despite their lost childhoods and the terrible upheaval, destruction, and despair they face, they are still children first, and having fun should be their number-one priority.
And each has a story to tell — of her journey, homeland, and hopes and wishes.
A compassionate, smart-beyond-her-years fourth-grader has penned a unique book, that is beautifully written and illustrated from the heart. The inspiring tale encourages young readers to believe in themselves now and forever, no matter what. Trisha Rao, now 9, wrote “Believe in Yourself” last year, because she felt sorry for refugee children around the world. Through the light-hearted story she tells, her wish is to remind them to be brave, to laugh and dream, but most of all to always have hope.
After all, children are the ones who suffer most from wars and conflicts.
Trisha’s best friend, her smiling golden retriever Sunshine, became the main character of this wonderful, must-read book, which is filled with her awesome paintings and illustrations. The young author intends to donate it to as many Syrian refugee kids as possible, while she shares her universal message of peace, love, strength, and courage with youngsters everywhere. Everybody can use a good dose of hope and happiness in their lives.
The worst humanitarian crisis of our lifetime
It’s hard to believe there are more than 60 million refugees in the world today, of which more than half are innocent children. The Syrian refugee crisis, which began in May 2011, is the largest displacement of people of our time, and you can’t turn on the news without hearing about the ongoing Syrian conflict — the topic of hotly debated conversations here in the U.S. and abroad.
Most Syrian refugees fleeing violence have found themselves in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, which is now the largest host of refugees in the region and also the largest host of refugees in the world. Turkey has taken a central role in the response to the Syria crisis, hosting close to 3 million Syrian refugees — more than any other country. About half are children dealing with unimaginable turmoil and fear in their young lives.
Trisha feels their pain, and decided to give them a special story.
An inquisitive student, she studied in a Montessori school in San Diego for the first six years of her life.
“My hobbies are painting, playing badminton, playing with my friends, reading books, listening to music, and dancing,” said Trisha. And her favorite subjects include English, matter and astronomy, science, and physical geography.
Her mother Sumana says her daughter has been painting since age 2 and remarkably, has made more than 300 acrylic paintings! And the San Diego Museum of Art exhibited Trisha’s works when she was just 2-and-a-half! Her paintings were also used to raise money for flood victims in Karnool, India, in 2010.
Trisha’s literary journey began last summer. On a tranquil, day-dreaming kind of afternoon, the aspiring 8-year-old poet scribbled some truly profound prose in her notebook as she gazed out her window. She called it “Believe in Yourself.” Her mom, who was surprised and deeply moved by what she wrote, already knew her daughter had a creative streak and that she was wise for her age.
“She has always been kind and compassionate,” she said lovingly.
So, while her peers were enjoying summer past times, Trisha’s mind went to matters beyond her safe, comfy California home. Shocked by media headlines about the war- and terror-stricken Syrian refugees, she expressed her sadness and concern about their plight to family and friends, who then helped her transform that heartfelt poem into a great children’s book that conveyed a universal message. One which seems to reverberate across oceans, deserts, and rough Middle Eastern terrains: Believe in yourselves! Don’t give up hope! I’m here for you!
Describing her poems, Trisha said, “I write from my heart about things that touch my heart — I write about nature, my pet dog Sunshine, my mom, my school, my friends, animals, trees, etc.”
The story follows Sunshine the pup and Papa Dog, who travel through the jungles of the world learning valuable life lessons from their animal friends, like standing up for yourself and others, loving yourself deeply, attempting to overcome challenges, creating your own opportunities, working hard to make your wishes come true, being grateful to God (or any higher power), being kind to others, and staying united with friends and loved ones.
The story concludes with wonderful symbolism as Papa Dog offers unconditional love to Sunshine, who finds it comforting to know that Papa Dog will always be there to love and support him.
Trisha’s journey to Istanbul
The young author and her family traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, in December 2015, and you can imagine what a truly memorable, life-altering journey it was. So she could share her important inspirational message of hope with Syrian refugee children living there, Trisha launched “Believe in Yourself” while visiting. She read it to a bevy of curious kids who had gathered around her. Sadly, they had lost their homes, and sometimes, their families.
Trisha said the children loved hearing the words to the story, and especially liked her colorful pictures. Apparently, they felt an instant bond to the long-haired American girl, despite the language barrier. What a thrill it must have been to make new friends!
Her experience turned out to be the most amazing family vacation she had ever had. Trisha says she wants to encourage ALL kids to stay hopeful, no matter what.
“I turned my poem into a children’s book to show that we all have great power within ourselves to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of other people, too,” she said. “I felt bad for the Syrian refugee children because they lost their homes, home lands, and families at a young age.”
Trisha said most of the children were with their parents, who were trying to get adjusted to a new country. They did not know the local language, so it was difficult for them to get good jobs.
“We met around 30 children — most between the ages of 5 and 10 — at the Support to Life community center in Istanbul. The refugee families lived far from the center, but the children came there every day to spend their day at the center,” Trisha recalled. (Support to Life is a humanitarian agency working with disaster-stricken communities.)
“The hardest part was when I learned that they did not have money to buy lunch,” the young writer said. “I felt bad that they had to walk several miles from where they were living to come to the center where they spent the whole day.”
The Support to Life team met Trisha and her family during their trip and in a letter, the director later thanked them for being part of their cause in improving the life of refugees in Turkey.
“By reading her book to the children, Trisha did not only give them support and inspiration, but also was able to touch them with her sincerity. Your thoughtful visit at the Istanbul Center Support to Life House made a great mark in the children’s lives since it was also a pathway for children to reconnect with their childhood,” the letter stated.
Trisha’s ultimate wish with her book is to reach every single child on the planet with her positive vibe. For every book she sells in 2016, she has pledged to donate one copy to refugee children around the globe.
And since those kids in Turkey loved the book so much, it was translated into Arabic. The books that have been donated so far — more than 110 — are in English. Once the Arabic books are printed, more can be sent to Syrian children. More than 500 copies have been sold.
“Believe in Yourself” has received the 2016 Gold Medal from the Independent Publishers Book Awards in the category of Best Children’s eBook. It is for sale on Amazon and through the United Nations Stores: https://www.amazon.com/Believe-Yourself-Trisha-Rao/dp/B01A4S1FQ0/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1465909533&sr=8-1&keywords=trisha+rao
Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance writer and journalist, parent, and regular contributor to New York Parenting.
Syrian refugee kids in the news
If you want to get a glimpse of what life is like “over there,” you and your kids should read Ali, Mustafa, and Amira’s journeys: “School in refuge: the stories of three Syrian children in Turkey”
You can also read how others are using creativity to help the young refugees:
Khaldiya Jibawi. This creative teen took a workshop in making videos after her family fled to a refugee camp. Her film about day-to-day life is now making the festival rounds.
UNICEF. Three “Unfairy Tales” is the The United Nations Children’s Fund’s new project that takes real-life stories of Syrian refugee kids and turns them into short — and really intense — animated videos.
Save the Children. This organization had Syrian refugee kids draw what they were feeling.