Ridaa Shahzad, Marketing Manager at Islamic Relief Canada, shares her favourite memories from a recent trip to Jordan and Lebanon.

snapchat-5666965527557614168I can confidently say that putting a smile on a child’s face is one of the most precious feelings in the world.

You often see pictures in the media of refugee children — unfortunately all of them reminding us of the hell they’re living in. And as a part of the marketing department at an international relief agency, I have come to know very well that (unfortunately) those are the very pictures that tug fervently at the heartstrings. That imagery is what moves people to do something about the situation.

Think Aylan Kurdi. Think Omran Daqneesh.

It’s the harsh reality of the world we live in. It disrupts the utopia we want this dunya (world) to be. Thus we are moved to “fix” it — to do something about it.

Despite the pain or the psychological trauma refugee children have experienced, seeing them smile is a blessing of its own. In the split second you see them smile, you hope they’ve forgotten what they’re living through — you hope that their entire being (even if for a short while) is filled with genuine happiness.

Last month, I had the opportunity to visit Syrian families benefiting from Islamic Relief Canada (IRC) funded projects in Lebanon and Jordan. Since my main objective was to bring back stories, videos, and photos, my camera was my best friend. And as it turns out, it was also the best friend of many refugee children.

It’s no doubt that it is odd seeing an outsider walk into your neighbourhood with a backpack and a large black camera around the neck — especially when they start pointing a long lens in your face while telling you to smile. I was hesitant to pull out my camera sometimes, as I was reminded of the viral picture of the young Syrian child who put her hands up when a photographer pointed his lens at her, but I was genuinely surprised at the welcome I received.

The children would automatically start posing for the camera. Some would put their arms around their friends and motion to me, “take a picture of us!” Others would throw up peace signs with huge smiles. Even if they were a bit shy, the minute I would show them their picture on the camera, a sheepish smile would naturally take over their entire face.

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The absolute best feeling was when kids would come to me, tug my sleeve, say “Miss, Miss! Me! Me!” and strike a pose. Another was when a child realized I was taking a lot of pictures of a cute toddler, so he picked up the toddler and hugged him so he could be in the picture as well.

How to break the ice with children when you don’t speak their language (applicable anywhere):
• Pull out your phone
• Open snapchat
• Turn on the front camera
• Apply a filter (the dog faces and flower crown are the favourites)
• Watch the joy spread across their faces

Despite the hardships they’ve had to deal with at such a young age, when they smile you can truly see their optimism and innocence. And you, in that moment, want it so badly to stay. You want to help ease their hardships. You want nothing more than to tell them that life gets better outside these muddy, claustrophobic camps. You want to give them the childhood they’ve been unjustly deprived of.

This is a generation of children who have lost everything — their home, their families, their education, their future. It upsets me to think of all the opportunities I take for granted, where these children have practically nothing but are still positive, energetic, hospitable, and extremely welcoming.

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Three young girls in Ouzei Camp, Lebanon.

Upon returning from my trip and reflecting on my experiences, I realized feeling guilty is not the right emotion. Allah (swt) decreed for me to be in the position I am in, at this very time. It is not in my control where I was born — or how I was brought up. What is in my control is to use this blessing — and the numerous other ones I can’t even begin to count — for bettering the lives of others. I use this opportunity as inspiration to renew my intentions every day when I come to work. So I can work even harder to share untold stories and unseen photos. I now wish to be able to make an even bigger difference in the lives of those who have lost so much — even if it is as simple as giving them a reason to a smile.