A young poet from war-torn Syria heals hearts with words
A YOUNG GIRL FROM WAR-TORN SYRIA HAS FOUND HER VOICE AS A PRIZE-WINNING POET, WRITES 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.”
Jana Karkar and (left) at the Powerhouse Museum with her mum Iman, dad Zaher and brother Ward.
A Syrian soldier stands guard in Jana Karkar’s former neighbourhood in Damascus.