A young poet from war-torn Syria heals hearts with words


The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Extra Saturday - El­iz­a­beth Fortes­cue

Jana Karkar’s lit­tle brother Mo­hammed was so wanted and loved, even be­fore he was born, that Jana and her mother Iman spent hours dis­cussing what he would be like. In their tem­po­rary home in Cairo, where they had fled as refugees from Syria in 2013, Jana and Iman col­lected clothes to be ready for the baby’s ar­rival.

It had been a healthy preg­nancy, de­spite the fam­ily’s stresses caused by liv­ing in a crowded apart­ment block far from home and friends.

“It was the worst two years of our life,” Iman says.

Iman’s hus­band Za­her was there, too, and their son Ward who was born in 2013.

But when Mo­hammed was born in 2015, he lived for only one week. His lit­tle body was fa­tally weak­ened by a hole in the heart and bleed­ing on the lungs. Jana at this time was six or seven years old.

Heart­bro­ken, Jana and her fam­ily strug­gled on. Sev­eral months later, they left Cairo be­hind to find a new life in Aus­tralia, ar­riv­ing here on hu­man­i­tar­ian visas. Jana to­day is nine years old. If you need to un­der­stand why the fam­ily left their home in the dis­trict of Jo­bar in Da­m­as­cus, Syria, just look at the pic­tures of the dis­trict on Google. Jo­bar is to­day a junk yard of ru­ined build­ings, its hori­zons punc­tu­ated with plumes of smoke from bom­bard­ment in the civil war.

“The best thing to do is just leave,” Iman Karkar says.

The fam­ily moved into ac­com­mo­da­tion in Wol­lon­gong where Jana was en­rolled in Wol­lon­gong West Pub­lic School. It was in her class­room ear­lier this year that Jana wrote a sim­ple and beau­ti­ful poem, pour­ing into it all her love and sad­ness for Mo­hammed.

Kirli Saun­ders, from an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Red Room Po­etry, had come to the school that day. All the kids in Jana’s Year 3 class had been asked by their teacher, Kylie Swain­son, to bring in an ob­ject that was dear to their hearts.

Jana brought in a tiny pho­to­graph of lit­tle Mo­hammed, the brother that never grew up to play with her.

Think­ing about the ob­ject they had brought in, the chil­dren were asked to write a poem as part of Saun­ders’ work­shop. Jana ti­tled her poem, A Pic­ture Of My Brother.

The truth and sim­plic­ity of the poem touched Saun­ders and Swain­son to the core.

“The story is ob­vi­ously in­cred­i­bly emo­tional, but I think there was a real strength for Jana to be able to tell her story and pay re­spect to her brother who is no longer with us,” Saun­ders says.

Kylie Swain­son says the poem was “spe­cial”.

“For fam­i­lies that have been through so much and still come out the other end smil­ing — I’m in awe of the whole fam­ily,” Ms Swain­son says.

Jana’s poem was en­tered in the pri­mary school cat­e­gory of the Po­etry Ob­ject com­pe­ti­tion of­fered by Red Room Po­etry, and this week it won. The an­nounce­ment was at the Pow­er­house Mu­seum in Ul­timo. Jana wins a prize pack in­clud­ing a $1000 travel voucher and po­etry mag­a­zine sub­scrip­tions.

But the true re­wards of Jana’s suc­cess lie in the pride her par­ents have in her, and the way she has com­mem­o­rated the baby who did not get to live out his life in a new coun­try, far from war.

Her mother Iman could not be­lieve her child could write so beau­ti­fully in English, her se­cond lan­guage. But she noted that Jana is a reader and has al­ways been a writer, even pre­tend­ing to write be­fore she was too young to re­ally do it. Per­haps it was to do with a habit the fam­ily has al­ways had. “Mum used to read me po­ems in Ara­bic when I was three years old,” Jana says. Writ­ing the poem about Mo­hammed was painful, Jana says. But it helped. “I just wanted to let go of ev­ery­thing I’m hold­ing in my heart,” she says. As youth will, Jana can see new be­gin­nings al­ready. Par­tic­u­larly since the fam­ily is due to ex­pand and a lit­tle daugh­ter is on the way. “I feel a lit­tle more com­fort­able be­cause my mum’s get­ting me a new girl,” Jana says. The baby is due in Fe­bru­ary, and ev­ery­one is ex­cited. Jana has done what she does best and writ­ten a new poem in pen­cil in her lined ex­er­cise book. “I am ex­cited to have a sis­ter. I won­der what is her eye colour go­ing to be. I wish it is sparkly brown like my eyes. I wish she is sweet like a lol­lipop. I want to teach her Ara­bic, English and gym­nas­tics. I want to have a beau­ti­ful life with my sis­ter.”

“It is sad. Like flower in win­ter it is white, it is blue. Like a cloudy sky in my heart. It breaks when I see it. It re­minds me of Egypt, friends, hot weather, prayer mats. He is so cute like a red rose.”

Pic­ture:, Sam Rut­tyn

Jana Karkar and (left) at the Pow­er­house Mu­seum with her mum Iman, dad Za­her and brother Ward.

Pic­ture: AP

A Syr­ian soldier stands guard in Jana Karkar’s for­mer neigh­bour­hood in Da­m­as­cus.

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