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The Little Princess of Aleppo

Alicja Borzyszkowska ’18 Recounts the Bravery of Displaced Syrian Youth

First, they killed her aunt. That night, much as the night before and the night after, the neighborhoods in Aleppo were empty. People were hiding in the street corners, covered with dust from their houses that had fallen. Every now and then, lights from the airstrikes that pierced the ground illuminated the peoples’ faces against the back shadows. In those brief moments of visibility, women would quickly keep track of those who were still alive. Men would count the dead. Their job was easier because the frayed contours of human flesh beneath the walls say what words no longer could.

That was a few years ago. Today, each day, Reyhan wakes up in her small bed, 1,119 kilometers — 695 miles — from Aleppo. Since the summer of 2016, she has been in a summer school in Istanbul, just like 78 other refugee kids with whom I began to work after they escaped the war in Syria and reached Turkey.

Reyhan is one of the unprecedented 70.8 million refugees currently displaced around the world according to 2019 statistics by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Among them are nearly 25.9 million registered refugees, over half are under the age of 18 — including Reyhan.

It is early morning, sometime in June. Reyhan and I are both in a classroom of a public school, located not far from the shores of the Bosporus. In a few minutes, both of us will appear in front of the camera for the filming of the first-of-its-kind documentary about Syrian youth in Turkey. The project is a partnership between Open Citadel Studios and Give a Hand, an organization supporting refugee families, for which I am a program director.

Reyhan is wearing a blue abaya and a dark scarf and looks beautiful. I’ve known her for years, but she never fails to surprise me with new evidence for how intelligent and mature she is. It is an almost unbearable effort to be kind, informed, productive and strong when you are worried about not being able to go to school, about a roof over your friend’s head, about how to replace your sister’s shoes, about how to secure money for lunch or about how not to get engaged too early — being haunted and chased by the daily unresolved problem of existing. But refugees must withstand these difficulties and more because rescue is not going to come from anyone else.

Reyhan knows this. She will do everything in her power to become a teacher, and this is why we are here. We are sitting in silence, waiting. I can tell that Reyhan is a bit nervous. She will be filmed for the first time in her life. This young woman is only fifteen but she has already seen too much; it shows in her eyes. We have five minutes before the camera will roll. I ask her: “Hey Reyhan, what is your favorite book?”. “الأمير الصغير [The Little Prince],” she replies. Then she looks down at her hands. I know that she is holding something back. I decide to wait. A few moments later, I watch Reyhan raise her head, as she looks into my eyes as bravely as ever, and tells me her own story about The Little Prince.

Back at home in Syria, Reyhan used to read this book with her aunt almost every night. They shared a room in a small compound and used to fall asleep together. One evening, unexpectedly,

the bombing began in their district. Reyhan and her aunt had minutes to leave. Only one of them made it alive. Reyhan never got to read The Little Prince again.

As Reyhan finishes the story, my vision blurs and my breath slows down, because I realize something. I have an Arabic-language copy of The Little Prince in my bag. It was the first book that I read in Arabic and it very soon became one of my favorites. I carry it with me almost everywhere I go. The more I have been traveling, the more I’ve become aware that solitude is bearable with books, awful without. I repeat “الأمير الصغير” to myself and before I fully realize what I am doing, I have already gotten up from my chair, reached into my bag and withdrawn The Little Prince, handing it to Reyhan. The look on her face as I do this is one I will never forget. When I think about this moment now, two years later it was one of the most intimate and profound experiences of my life. Reyhan. Two minutes later she was on the set talking about her dream to become a teacher.

The Little Princess of Aleppo

Our film directors, Alessandro Leonardi and Elena Horn caught this moment on camera, which is how the title of the documentary — Pizza, Democracy, and The Little Prince — came to be. The film had its international premiere at Sedona Film Festival in Arizona in 2019, where it won the prize as “Best Documentary Short.” Since the premiere, this film has made a bold statement across the world about the right of Syrian youth in Turkey to be viewed primarily as children whose dreams, struggles and aspirations are just as valid as those of anybody else.

Reyhan is not just waiting for change. She is the change that I hope the rest of us will acknowledge. She continues to build her life in Istanbul every single day with grace and courage, learning the language and customs of the people whom she learned how to trust. Reyhan keeps Aleppo deep in her heart and she wants to return there one day. War correspondent Martha Gellhorn once said that “nothing is better for self-esteem than survival.” For Reyhan, just as important is her sense of belonging to Syria.

As a young social activist from Poland, Alicja Borzyszkowska ’18 is deeply passionate about the issues of displacement in the Red Sea region, the impact of war on children and the securitization and supply chain of humanitarian aid. She met Reyhan, the Syrian girl featured in the article, in Istanbul, where for the past three years Borzyszkowska has served as a program director of the nongovernmental organization, “Give a Hand.” Through this role, Borzyszkowska has been involved in work with refugee families, organizing social and emotional learning programs and tailoring trauma-informed and child-focused curricula for Turkish elementary schools that educate Syrian refugee youth.

Most recently, Borzyszkowska was involved in establishing the Gazi Research Project, a platform substantiating academic research with practical conclusions to promote high impact social change for refugee communities. As part of her role in the project, she organizes special awareness events that aim to change the perceptions of refugees in the West.