Refugee children in Sherbrooke receive custom-made doll who, like them, survived war

Shaam, a doll created in Sherbrooke, Que., shares the story of many refugee children who have left their countries behind and lost loved ones to war. The creator is now distributing them to children to help them talk about their struggles.

Micheline Youssef hopes her doll Shaam will allow children to open up about past trauma

Balqees Dakhl Alla is one of the students at Sherbrooke's École Larocque elementary school who was able to meet Shaam on Thursday. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

"I had this dream and today it came true. I'm so happy," said Micheline Youssef as she dropped off boxes to daycares and elementary schools in Sherbrooke, Que., the week before Christmas.

Inside each box was a doll named Shaam, the Arabic word for Damascus, the capital of Syria.

With brown eyes and brown hair pinned back with a jasmine, the unofficial flower of her home country, Shaam represents a Syrian girl who escaped war.

Like so many children who now live in Canada, Shaam lived in a refugee camp and had to cope with the death of her friend. 
Seham Kadimati (right) said her favorite thing about Shaam is her bright red dress. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

Youssef said the goal of giving this doll such a charged story was to give refugee children a reason to open up about their own past, without having to find the right words in a foreign language.

Tool in the classroom

After a succesful crowdfunding campaign which raised more than $10,000 to produce the dolls, Youssef is donating the them to schools and daycares where kids will share them.

"Everybody who lived the war, even parents, are so happy and tell me 'You give us some comfort, that someone thinks of us and lived the same thing as us,'" said Youssef.

Inside the classroom of Sherbrooke's École Larocque elementary school is where Youssef presented Shaam for the first time.

Seham Kadimati, a young girl from Syria, approved of the doll's bright red dress, adorned with a heart. She didn't want to explain how similar her life story was to Shaam's.

"If I do ma'am, I will cry," she said.

Ibrahim Nakouh and Nabhan Hamid laugh as they hold Shaam for the first time. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)
Kadimati's classmates are from Brazil, Kuwait, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Their teacher, Isabeau Hotte Lacroix, said it sometimes takes her students a long time to adapt to life in Quebec when they first arrive.

She said she hopes to experiment with Shaam as a communication tool to help them feel better.

"Just to speak to someone without having to answer questions. Just to express themselves," Hotte Lacroix said, who hopes to send Shaam home for short periods with the children who grow more attached to the doll.

A salvation for Youssef

Youssef said focusing on this project helped her deal with her own trauma.

While living in Damascus during the war, she said she never knew what would happen when she left for work in the morning.

It took her family two years to get out of the country when they finally were sponsored by a Syrian orthodox church.

"​I have many stories and they are sad stories. I try to forget them by doing something good for people, by looking at the positive side," said Youssef.
Micheline Youssef, the creator of Shaam, hopes her doll will be a tool to talk about the difficult topic of war with children. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

"Shaam helped me find a reason to live and to continue in this life, to give hope to kids and to myself."

The 40-year-old creator is now contacting other organizations who work with refugee children and she hopes to distribute the rest of the dolls in the coming weeks.

Youssef said all she can hope for the year ahead is to see an end of the war that has destroyed her country, so that Shaam's story can evolve to a trip back to her home.
Micheline Youssef distributed the dolls to elementary schools and daycares throughout Sherbrooke. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)