Sometimes on this trip (very often in Syria, as it’s turning out) someone touches us in a strong way. Today it was the turn of Wafa, a 17 year old girl from the village of Kafran Booda, to take a place in our hearts. She and her brother found us last night in a field near their home and urged us to come visit the next morning. Their house was almost across the road from where we camped and as we entered to share a tea and breakfast we realised instantly that this was not a rich family. Like so many people we saw in the fields all around us, these were farm workers, tending crops of peppers, potatoes and cotton. The home was very simple and chilly in the cool winter air as Wafa showed us the bedroom she shared with three of her sisters. English is her favourite subject and she proudly presented a list of questions she’d prepared for us overnight.
At the top of the paper Wafa wrote: “I am excited to meet you because it is the first time I can practice my English.” The rest of the page was divided into two neat columns filled with questions.
Do you have a mobile phone? Do you eat eggs? Will you eat breakfast with me? Do you like biking? Where will you go? Do you like music?
At least a dozen more followed and soon we started returning questions, also by writing them down. Wafa found our accents hard to understand but as soon as we put pen to paper she understood immediately. Over eggs, olives, oil, a dish of za’taar spice, bread and tea we learned that Wafa walks six kilometers to school, that she’s been studying English since she was 11 and that she hopes to be a teacher one day. There are 35 girls in her class. She doesn’t want to travel but she likes music and collecting things. She would like to go to university but doesn’t know if she can.
She asked if we were married and, in return, we asked if she would marry. Her face fell. Instead of replying by talking, she wrote that her parents wanted her to marry now but with a man she did not love and who was nearly twice her age. There was a man she loved but he had married another woman.
“What should I do?” she asked.
We didn’t have the answer. Our shared language was not so complex and the cultural differences too vast but we could see the sadness in her eyes and feel the dilema she faces. “Only you know the answer,” we wrote on the paper. “Follow your heart.” It seemed an inadequate answer but it was the only one we could muster.
After a little more chatter we gave her a few things we’d found to share. A pen for her school work. Some chocolate. A pair of pretty socks. Wafa insisted on returning the favour with a favourite pen, one with glittery purple ink. We wished we had something more appealing to a teenager to share; a pretty scarf or a handbag but we had very little in our panniers aside from dirty laundry.
The morning flew by and soon it was time to leave. Wafa had to go to school and we had the road calling us. We exchanged addresses and on the slip of paper she gave us was written: “Thank you very much. I remember every day and I don’t forget you.”
We were touched as well, struck by her enthusiasm and talent for English and the realities of life that mean she may be pressured to marry a man she does not love and could never get the chance to go to university. It occupied our minds for the rest of the day, eclipsing even the wonders of the archaeological ruins at Apamea and continuing throughout our long ride into the city of Hama.