January 26, 2016

Syria’s Young Talent: the chess-playing brother and sister

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Syrian refugee chess players Abdulsalmouh Ahmad Hourieh and Lana Ahmad Hourieh picture by Tabitha Ross

Lana Ahmad Hourieh and her brother Abdulsalmouh All pictures by Tabitha Ross

Without education, the potential of hundreds of thousands of talented young Syrian children risks being lost. That's why we're calling on the international community to ensure one million refugee children secure an education this year in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

A World at School launched the Hope for Syria's Young Talent petition ahead of a crucial international Syria pledging conference in London on February 4. World leaders will meet to secure the $750 million needed to fund all the school places for refugee children.

Hope for Syria's Young Talent shows there is a generation of young people who will not be able to fulfil their potential if they denied an education.

The talented children found for this campaign were discovered by Sonbola, an education initiative working to provide quality education and interactive learning for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon while investing in empowering and developing teaching skills of Syrian professionals. Visit Sonbola's Facebook page.

In this series of articles, Beirut-based writer and photographer Tabitha Ross talks to some of those talented girls and boys about their hopes and dreams. You can read more about Syria's Young Talent here.

Here we meet chess players Abdulsalmouh Ahmad Hourieh, 14, and his sister Lana, 12. 


Abdulsalmouh and his sister Lana are both pretty shy kids. It was hard to make them come out of themselves, until I accepted a challenge of a game of chess. It seemed rude not to.

Let’s be clear - I was under no illusions that they’d do anything other than thrash me. And thrash me they did - quickly, decisively and with glee, their faces alive and laughing. 

It’s hard to say whether their shyness is an innate part of their personality, or perhaps partly because of what they have experienced - including a car bomb outside their school gates and their school being bombed.

Fearful for their lives, the family fled to Lebanon. But it was difficult to find school places and they were out of education for five months.

They’ve been back in school since last autumn and are doing well. They say playing chess helps with their education because it teaches them to concentrate. I also spoke to their mother Iman Domayeriya..

Syria's Got Talent chess players Abdulsalmouh Ahmad Hourieh and Lana Ahmad Hourieh picture by Tabitha Ross

ABDULSALMOUH: We’re from Damascus, from just the outskirts of Yarmouk camp. We were in school in Damascus.

LANA: I liked playing.

ABDULSALMOUH: I was in 6th grade

LANA: I was in 5th.

ABDULSALMOUH: I first learned to play chess in 2008 when my uncle taught me, I was eight years old.

LANA: Our uncle is very good at chess. He taught us to play and after that we started playing each other.

ABDULSALMOUH: I loved it because I found I could beat people.

LANA: it was just a talent we discovered. It required thinking, it pushed us to concentrate.

IMAN: it’s about competition for them. They love the game and trying to beat each other. They just want to win.

LANA: Abdulsamouh is a bit better than I am at the moment but I’m the one who won a competition organised by the municipality of Barelias. I was the only one there from my school. There were lots of children there.  I felt very happy when I won.

Syria's Got Talent chess players Abdulsalmouh Ahmad Hourieh and Lana Ahmad Hourieh picture by Tabitha Ross

IMAN: I used to play chess when I was younger.  When I was living with my parents, I played with my brothers and sisters. My dad used to play with us because it helped us to think and develop our concentration. When I had children, I wanted them to learn. I bought them a chess set and encouraged them. When we were living in Syria, whenever we visited my parents in the village, my brothers and sisters would play chess with the kids. So it became a habit for them.

ABDULSALMOUH: At school in maths, you have to think very hard and chess has helped us with that. It is a very complicated game. We didn’t go to school immediately when we got to Lebanon because there weren’t enough places. Also it was the middle of the school year, January 2014, and it’s hard to find a place and join halfway through the year.

IMAN: Things got bad in Yarmouk in 2011, there was fighting and explosions. But there were phases to the violence, it wasn’t always bad. We thought it might get better but it got worse. It became dangerous to send the kids to school and I didn’t want them to miss out on their education. So towards the end of 2011 we left and went to my parents’ village in the countryside near Damascus. The kids went to school there for a year, until that school was bombed and closed. At that point we left and came to Lebanon.

ABDULSALMOUH: Yes, I remember the bombing. The school was hit on the weekend, so we weren’t in it at the time. But once we were at school in Yarmouk and there was an explosion next to it. We had to hide under the desks.

IMAN: The other parents and I were terrified. We heard the news and ran to school to bring our children home. They were all crying and some had been hit by flying broken glass.

LANA: I felt scared. All the children started crying. I was in 5th grade. I got under the desk. The sound was very loud. We kept hiding until our parents brought us home.

ABDULSALMOUH: You have two kinds of bombs. The first kind takes you by surprise, like a car bomb. You don’t know it’s coming. The second kind you can tell it’s coming, you hear the planes or the helicopters coming and you know they’ll drop bombs on you.

Syria's Got Talent chess players Lana Ahmad Hourieh picture by Tabitha Ross 3

IMAN: I was afraid to send them to school. It wasn’t safe at all to walk and even the school bus was sometimes caught in bombing or fighting on the way. So I started keeping them home. The car bomb happened at 8.30 in the morning.  All the students were at school and people were on their way to work. I still find it a very hard thing to think about. There were many killed and injured - students, teachers, people on their way to work.

ABDULSALMOUH: We were out of school for five months in Lebanon. It was very hard. We were always at home. We didn’t even have a chess board at that time because we couldn’t bring ours with us.

IMAN: I kept going to different schools and trying to register them. I was worried, I felt they were losing time out of education. They went back in September 2014 after half a year out.

ABDULSALMOUH: That first day back, I felt so happy because I would be studying again.

LANA: I was happy because it’s important to study and to learn. The school is good and it’s going well now.

ABDULSALMOUH: What’s difficult is that it’s all in English here but in Syria everything was taught in Arabic. But at least I feel safe at school here.

ABDULSALMOUH: When I grow up I want to be a computer engineer.

LANA: I love computers too. Maybe I’ll be a computer engineer too. Or some other sort of engineer.

IMAN: No one living in another country can imagine what we went through. They will be secure in their lives and they won’t understand.

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