1 June 2009
As the sweltering heat of the Syrian summer engulfs the streets of Yarmouk refugee camp, a group of schoolgirls dashes towards the cooling shade of nearby trees. Despite the heat, Leyla, Leilan, Gilnar, and Tasnim's spirits cannot be dampened as today (the 31st of May) marks the end of the examination period at Falouja School. Coincidentally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has also designated today as World No Tobacco Day. This annual initiative is designed to spread knowledge about the ill-effects of smoking through public awareness campaigns across the globe.
This year, the WHO is pressing for hard-hitting pictorial health warnings to be printed on cigarette, cigar, and other tobacco products' packaging. Currently, 23 countries, including four from the Eastern Mediterranean region, have supported the "Picture warnings save lives" campaign in full and have adhered to the WHO's pictorial health warnings request. Through conversations with school staff and students here in Yarmouk, it is clear that local UNRWA schools such as Falouja have not only embraced the WHO's message, but have engrained it within the schools' cultures.
"Our school, as a source of health awareness, is engaged in a number of activities aimed at highlighting the dangers of smoking," explains Heyfa' 'Okasha, Head Teacher of Falouja School. As she proceeds to describe these activities, it becomes evident that the variety of projects implemented reflects the importance which the school places on disseminating such knowledge. "In every school subject, we have discussions about the dangers of smoking. For example, our science teacher tells the students about the physically harmful effects while our religion teacher outlines the social and economic costs of forming such a habit."
In order to encourage students to express their opinions and new-found knowledge regarding tobacco use, the school organized a series of artistic and cultural activities, including poster competitions, song composing, and even playwriting. The fruits of students’ endeavors soon adorned school walls, and students performed their plays for neighboring schools.
On 10 March 2009, the school also held a health symposium where a doctor from the local community addressed the students and outlined how smoking can cause irreversible damage to the human body. "The doctor had a laptop computer and he showed us pictures about the damages that smoking causes to our bodies. We saw a lot of videos," explain Laila and Leilan, who attend Falouja School.
Soon after the initial symposium, a similar presentation was delivered to the students' parents in order to address their own perceptions of tobacco use. As Khawla Sulaimani, an English teacher from nearby Ras el-Ein School, explains, "Children often imitate their parents; this is very common behaviour." Although this might suggest attitudes and behaviour can only be influenced in one direction, Sulaimani insists this is not the case. "It is up to the family as a whole to alter each other's behaviour. As a school, we give information about the effects of smoking to children so that they will then pass it on to their parents. We recently had a child who, after learning about the problems caused by tobacco, went home and said to her mother, 'Please don't smoke anymore, I don't want to lose you.' Following this, the mother decided to cut down on her smoking."
Encouragingly, Falouja School was not unique in organizing anti-tobacco campaigns in Syria. In Damascus alone, at least ten other UNRWA schools hosted similar health symposia and organized artistic and cultural projects.
The school hopes that its efforts will have a long-lasting impact. Indeed, the students’ attitude suggests that the WHO's call has not fallen on deaf ears. When asked if she would ever start smoking, Leyla responded, "No, no! Because we care about our health and our lungs would become black if we smoked!"
Text by Valere de Riedmatten
Photos by Valere de Riedmatten and Nouna Al-Dimashqiya