Children to children, gift 'turned into something special'

March 1, 2007
Daily Hampshire Gazette

The Rev. Nabil Haddad poses with children at the monastery in Amman, Jordan, where he and Northampton resident Claudia Lefko launched an arts-based school program geared toward young Iraqi refugees.

NORTHAMPTON - If trying to figure out how to help the victims of the Iraq war is a question that causes despair in adults, you'd think it would be even more troubling for children, who have still less power to effect change.

Yet, children often surprise adults by the simple ways they rise to the occasion.

"Children have instincts. When they see other children in trouble they ask, 'well, how can we help them?'" said Northampton resident Claudia Lefko, who has been working with a city-based Brownie troop in an exchange that is helping enrich the lives of Iraqi refugee children living in Jordan.

The children will meet a Jordanian co-participant in that exchange Saturday.

The unusual partnership came about when Lefko, founder and director of the Iraqi Children's Art Exchange Project, was on a trip to Jordan last year.

She said girls from the Northampton Brownie Troop 348 donated money from their Girl Scout cookie sales to her last spring as she was preparing for a late-summer trip to Jordan. The Brownies asked her to use the money to buy books and other necessities the Iraqi children might need.

While in Amman, Jordan, Lefko happened to meet the Rev. Nabil Haddad, a Melkite priest and director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center. Haddad told her of his hope to start a project that would offer support to the tens of thousands of Iraqis living in exile in the city.

As it turned out, that chance meeting led to Lefko giving Haddad the Brownies' $75 to help establish an art school for Iraqi refugee children living in Amman.

The magnitude of the project their money went toward is not lost on the Brownies.

"I'm really proud, because it's a school," said Pearl Silverman, 8, of Northampton. "Not all kids get to start a school."

On Saturday, the Brownies will hear more about what their money helped get started when Haddad makes a special stop in Northampton while on a U.S. diplomatic tour through Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington. Haddad is accompanying a group of Muslim scholars and clerics from the Middle East touring the United States in the second phase of a two-year exchange project titled "Islam: Scholarship and Practice in the United States."

Haddad will be at the Edwards Church on Main Street for a celebration open to the public at noon Saturday.

Took shape quickly

After their serendipitous meeting, the collaboration between Lefko and Haddad moved quickly. Within two weeks, they worked with a group of volunteers, cleaning out three rooms in an old monastery attached to a church. They removed 30 years of debris and cleaned old wooden desks to use in the program, and enlisted the help of two volunteer teachers.

Within three weeks, they launched a small arts-based school program for Iraqi refugee children in Amman, but open to any child regardless of religion or country of origin. They used the money sent by the Brownies to buy art supplies, books and snacks for the students.

"A little donation turned into something special," said Jeanne Almanzar, co-leader of Brownie Troop 348.

Lefko returned to show the Brownies color copies of the pictures the Iraqi children drew while in the art classes at the school, as well as a thank you letter from Haddad, in which he wrote that the money would be a great contribution to a noble cause.

"Thank you so much on behalf of the children who will be your partners in building peace in this world. Through art we will contribute to this objective," he wrote.

For their part, the Brownies seemed thrilled that their money helped with such a concrete goal.

Aisha Diallo, 8, of Northampton, said she is excited that kids who don't have a school could take some art classes now, and said she liked that Haddad sent a letter to her troop.

"I'm glad to know I was helping with something," she said.

Emma Almanzar, 8, also from Northampton said that when her troop meets the priest, they plan to "make new friends," and give more supplies - things like paintbrushes, books, and puzzles - to bring back to the school.

In addition to the Brownie troop, a group of children from North Adams will present 1,000 hand-made paper cranes and perform a play based on the book called "Sadako and the 1,000 Cranes."

In addition, Lefko said, Haddad will return to Jordan with a giant mural prepared by children at Kidspace at Mass MoCA, located in North Adams.

Thirty children now attend the school in Amman, five mornings and one afternoon a week.

"We have friends we haven't met yet, and we probably won't," says Jeanne Almanzar.

But that doesn't really matter all that much to the Brownies. The children know they were a part of building a new school, but they might not know that they were a part of something bigger, Lefko said.

"Children have their own way of framing things. They will understand when they see Father Nabil," she said. "Maybe then, they will think of it."