• Adrian Bethune

Teaching Happiness in Istanbul: Stories from Syrian Refugees

Guest blog By Umbreen Shaikh


Maryam is known as a bully. She taunts girls and even teachers who don’t wear a headscarf. Ibrahim, Rami and Ahmad are brothers who just arrived from Iraq this week. It doesn’t appear that their father has come with them, and they wear the same clothes every day. Humza works as a barber. He is 13 years old and wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a Turkish flag. These are some of my students in a small classroom in a neighborhood called Fatih in Istanbul, dubbed “Little Syria” (resentfully by Turks and warmly by Syrians). I’m here to teach them positive psychology. I speak English, they speak Arabic, and everyone else speaks Turkish.

Let me give you a bit of background. I teach a positive psychology course called ‘The Quest for Happiness’ at a university in the UAE, and I spend my summers doing volunteer work. This summer I contacted an NGO in Turkey called Small Projects Istanbul and offered to come conduct workshops on positive psychology for their beneficiaries, mainly Syrian refugees. SPI was very welcoming and excited about our collaboration. SPI is a community center that offers integration and livelihood activities to help acclimate refugees to their new lives in Istanbul.

To attend my workshops, they hand-picked children between the ages of 10 and 14 who were struggling with psycho-social issues. As I’ve only taught at the university level, I immediately went online to search for someone who specialized in teaching wellbeing to children and more than that, someone who could offer training. I instantly came across Adrian Bethune’s Teachappy organization and was thrilled to learn about his work.

With the shared interest of promoting wellbeing for children, Adrian and I collaborated to bring his material to Istanbul. We had brainstormed and discussed effective and fun ways to deliver the content to children, keeping in mind the fact that there would be a language barrier and that the children participating were dealing with various mental health issues, not to mention their already vulnerable status as refugees. While I do speak a little Arabic, it wasn’t enough to teach so I also had a translator working with me.

The workshops covered Gratitude, Positive Mindsets/Optimism, Positive Relationships, Mindfulness and Character Strengths. SPI informed me that bullying was a problem the children were facing (Turkish students bullying Syrian, or girls wearing headscarf bullying girls who don’t wear a headscarf) so I added in a segment to address bullying as well.

The children were bursting with energy and excitement and were extremely receptive to the material. Each lesson would start with going over the ‘house rules’ (this is a safe space, all opinions are welcome, etc.) and then a short lecture about the topic, followed by round table discussions and sharing experiences, an activity or practice, and then a debrief at the end to sum up the day.


Journaling was a constant throughout the course, and on the first day when the simple lined notebooks were handed out to the children they were over the moon with excitement. One activity involved decorating the cover of their journal with stickers and magazine cutouts, and carrying this journal to class every day seemed to instill in the children a sense of pride and ownership over the material. Some of the activities we did together included a nature walk, a breathing meditation, physical exercise to demonstrate the connection between the mind and the body, passing around a gratitude jar in class, writing and giving a gratitude letter to someone, creating a visual collage of their character strengths, drawing journey maps to find the silver lining in bothersome situations, a play and discussion about bullying, designing and building a gift for a classmate to nurture positive relationships, and small acts of kindness outside the classroom.

I was a bit apprehensive about the ‘nature walk’- wondering what beauty the children would find in the neighborhood we would be walking through. As we strolled through the neighborhood, the children clutched their journals, ‘opening their awareness’ to notice little sights and sounds around them. They were full of wonder as they took in the familiar streets, seeing new and beautiful details everywhere they looked. Squinting in the sunlight and leaning up against houses, they scribbled notes and drawings into their journals.

Here are some quotes from the children “I notice that the sun isn’t yellow today, it’s golden”, “I feel the wind on my skin”, “I spot my favorite flower”, “a strawberry candy wrapper on the ground”, “a dog playing in a window”, “the smell of baba ganoush”, “a stray cat curled up, sleeping”, “the lace on the white curtains in that window”, “a butterfly”. The lists went on and on as they found bits and pieces of beauty using their senses of sight, sound, smell and touch.

When we did a breathing meditation, I wasn’t sure if it would resonate with them, if they would see and understand the value in long, slow, deep inhales and exhales. My translator guided the class through ten breaths, and all but one of the children kept their eyes closed and followed along. When we debriefed at the end, they said they felt “peaceful”, “relaxed’, “I opened my imagination and could see my favorite color, gold”, “I imagined my favorite thing: my ipad”, “I feel calm”. They really enjoyed the breathing and also the visualizations. In a later session about how to handle a situation with a bully, one student said “stay calm, don’t react, and do the breathing exercises”.

One boy named Humza came up to us at the end of the first session and said he might not be able to make it next time since he has a job. Doing what? “I’m a barber, I cut hair”. All children in our class were between the ages of 10 and 14. Humza didn’t make it to the next class, but to my surprise he did come to a later one, and on his ‘character strengths’ collage he pasted a picture of a pair of scissors.


Three boys came together and said they were brothers, and had just arrived this very week from Iraq with their mother. While doing the gratitude letter exercise, I instructed the kids to choose someone they could physically hand the letter to tonight. Rami raised his hand and asked if he could write to his father, and read it over the phone since he was ‘away traveling’. He didn’t say where, but I don’t think his father had come with them from Iraq. I said yes, of course. The next day when they shared their stories, Rami said ‘I read the letter to my father over the phone and he asked me “Who made you write this letter?” When I told him it was for my class, my father said “Say a big thank you to your teachers, and do not stop attending this class, do not be late, this is a very important class”. These three brothers were amongst the most dedicated students, the best team players, the most mature in expressing their thoughts and feelings. Every day they turned up in the same clothes as the day before, and said it was because they hadn’t had a chance to unpack yet.

I had been warned about one student named Maryam, who had been caught bullying other kids. During the session on coping strategies for dealing with bullies, she put her head down on the desk and closed her eyes, saying loudly “I don’t have problems with bullies, everyone loves me, I’m going to sleep”. We carried on and students shared stories of being bullied and how much it had hurt them, and we discussed strategies for handling a bully. When I mentioned that a bully is not a bad person, but a person who is confused and probably struggling with insecurities and lashing out, or a person who has perhaps been a victim themselves, Maryam seemed to wake up. On the last session when we recapped all the classes and every student chose their favorite topic, Maryam mentioned ‘gratitude letters and bullying’.

Iman journaled religiously, coming up to me every day to show me the three new butterflies she had drawn next to the three things she was grateful for that day. Aya said she had gone out and done multiple acts of kindness for various people, including elderly ladies shopping in the weekly vegetable market.


I was surprised when we talked about anxiety and most of the kids said they experienced it. I was also surprised when most kids openly shared stories of being bullied. I was surprised when we did an exercise about values where each child ranked in order of importance: family, friends, toys, money, and education, and ‘money’ was number two, after ‘family’. Why would ten year olds value ‘money’ over ‘toys’ or ‘friends’? Ahmad disagreed with the majority, and said that he gave zero ranking to ‘toys’ and ‘money’ because he felt materialistic things were nothing compared to relationships, and education was what would really help them succeed. He also said his dream was to become an archaeologist.

It was very difficult to say goodbye, but I wrote a gratitude card to every child to continue to encourage the practice, and, simply, to thank them and tell them to keep smiling their beautiful smiles and dreaming their beautiful dreams. They rushed up to me with big hugs, home-made cards covered in hearts, and saying in English “teacher, I love you”. Hana asked the translator “how do I say ‘I’ll miss you’ in English?” and Ibrahim had brought a tablet to class and asked if he could take a photo with me with his two brothers.

As we left the building on my last day, the last thing I saw was these four walking down the street, waving wildly and smiling as I snapped their picture, shouting ‘goodbye teacher!’ ‘I love you teacher!’. ‘I love you too!’ I cried back, putting my camera down and trying to just remember this moment and their joy, my eyes filling with tears.


Umbreen Shaikh is an educator and writer currently working in the U.A.E. where she teaches Positive Psychology as well as Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Her research interests include migration and displacement, and in her spare time she travels the world and engages in volunteer work. To contact her, email: umbreen.shaikh@gmail.com

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