Advice from a 14 year old
Syrian refugee that set me free

By Deepak Ramola

Hane (on the left) and another refugee from the Calais Camp (on the right)

This pain we feel seems out of syllabus. A curriculum we never prepared. This phase is more than a surprise test. Yet we must attempt this exam with all we know. Failing is not an option neither is bailing out. There are marks for trying. Points garnered to restore a little more hope, a score for saving humanity with our might and consolation grading that allows us to write our own version of history – As charred and challenging as it might be.

Time suspends like a metal piece. We don’t live through it anymore. We chip it away, piece by piece. We are the pendulum, oscillating between excruciating despair and fatal optimism. One way to appear and sit through this exam is to introspect and revise whatever bits and pieces one can borrow from past experiences. To take note of what helped you survive all the wars you have been in, previously. The win is not in how much you can forget but how much you can truly remember. It’s our only ammunition against the aghastness of what faces us.

When I dig deep into the well of memories, my hand stumbles upon a windy day in 2016. I was in Calais, a port city in the South of France. In one of the most volatile refugee camps in the world, referred to as ‘The Jungle’, I was scrounging stories of hope amidst one of the biggest humanitarian crisis. The landscape was home to nearly 7000 refugees, mostly men, from 18 nationalities. A change of lane between makeshift tents could take you from South Sudan to Eritrea to Afghanistan to Syria.

In one such lane, on a parched afternoon, I sat across Hane, a 14 year old boy who had lost all members of his family in a bomb attack in Syria. He survived because he reached home late from school. He had stopped at the mosque to pray. When he arrived to find his people and place in a heap of debris, a distant neighbor took him into care and smuggled him to France via the dangerous sea route. All by himself in this camp, Hane, told me that he found comfort in anything that makes him believe tomorrow will be better or else the loss can be drowning.

After listening to his struggles and his aspirations, I asked him the question I may have not dared asking a 14 year old had he not shown immense courage to live through what he had.

I asked him, “So what did all this teach you, Hane?” He looked up at the hole on the roof of his tent, glared at the half broken pot he fed himself from, ran his fingers on the muddy mattress upon which we sat and replied softly, “You know Deepak life is hard. But being angry about it solves nothing. Does it?”

And so, when my heart is riddled with disabling disappointment and frustration, I often think about Hane and his advice. No 14 year old should have to learn this hard truth, much less to verbalize it for others. But there he was offering his sagacity with poise and grace. The solution is not easy and apparent. But it exists in every effort made to find it. If we believe enough that the next day sun brings us a new light, we might just be able to survive and see it for ourselves.

When in war-like situations in life, he told me, grief overflows and hope has lost its map, one must refuse to offer more energy to angst but rather channelize it to help the wounds of the next injured person. No swords can ever suffice to cut through the pain, but no amount of help is ever wasted to heal from its clutches.

He taught me that we are what happened to us yesterday but we also are what happens to us tomorrow.

About The Author

Deepak Ramola
Deepak Ramola is the founder and artistic director of Project FUEL. He is currently pursuing a master’s programme at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A TED Talks speaker and UN Action Plan Executor, he previously served as the Kindness Ambassador for the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development. His methodology has been recognized among the world’s top 100 innovations in education and has been adopted across five continents. Ramola is also a celebrated lyricist in Hindi cinema, and his songs have been voiced by Amitabh Bachchan, Farhan Akhtar and Rekha Bhardwaj, among others. His first collection of Hindi poetry, Itna Toh Main Samajh Gaya Hoon, received the prestigious Dwarka Prasad Aggarwal Young Writer Award in 2020. His latest book, 50 Toughest Questions of Life, has gone into a reprint two weeks after its release.