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Inside the eyes of refugee children, I found myself swimming in hope this week. It wasn’t the kind of hope that I expect during the holidays. It didn’t come with bells or fancy songs or a thousand lights. But this hope dug deep. It transformed me.

Like little ornaments, the eyes of the refugee children made promises – maybe for peace, perhaps for a better world. They flipped opened and shut, decorating a colorless refugee camp in hazel, green, blue and brown wonder. Each of them waited behind a tall chain-linked fence, beside a highway in Zürich Switzerland for volunteers like me to come.

“You’re from America?” they asked. “But I live in Switzerland now,” I explained. “Like you.”

We would walk with them beside a river, collecting leaves. We would play together, paint together, and I would learn. They wore thick coats, their voices chattered and giggled in gentle, unfettered tones hovering over a place weighted in sadness, in adult problems, adult fear. The children’s clothing was mostly faded, their skin brown, white, cream, black; their sounds made words that originated from places I’d never visited – Iran, Turkey, Albania, Armenia, Syria and Egypt.

I wondered what they had endured to reach this camp – how they could smile at me still, spin on a merry-go-round; swing loose-legged on a playground through the wide grey sky, just like my kids. I wondered how a little girl could lift a seemingly average leaf in front of a wide grin to show me exactly how it formed the shape of a colorful heart.

“This is a good place, the best place, the safest for us,” said a refugee mom. “We are blessed.”

Men sat staring at the sky. “What do you need most?” I asked the mom.

“Prayers,” she replied.

I knew that they had very little by many standards. They’d lost their countries, homes, schools, their pets, their comfort, their security. But yet their hope emerged from places one might not notice in brown mud puddles, in enormous cracks in dirty pavement beneath worn shoes.

Hope seeped from the arms of brothers and sisters holding hands, lifting each other carefully to climb monkey bars, to catch an unsteady sister.

Hope flew from hands pushing a swing, laughing at the sound a voice makes in a graffiti painted tunnel beneath a highway.

Hope sprang from minds watching over one another – Where is my sister? Don’t let her climb that one. Not safe,” a 10-year-old communicated in words and signs I could somehow understand.

Hope slipped inside my tired head through the kind eyes and gentle voice of a teenage girl, hair covered in a hijab, asking questions about California, about my children.

Hope pounded from within my chest when one boy asked me to paint a leaf. “Again, again!” he cheered as if a new leaf was magic despite unanswered questions stirring in the background about gunfire back at home, about where a family might live next, about a mother sick in the hospital, about another friend gone, about school, pets, relatives, homes far away.

Hope galloped through my veins when children drew and painted their own leaves. New leaves. Leaves filled with gorgeous lines, continuing on and on. “One more piece of paper! Please?” asked a child. Hope raced on, extending from full hearts, lines exhaling in life and color, streaming in all directions.

Hope nestled at my family’s dinner table later when I came home to tell my daughter that our art project idea had helped. “They liked making leaves.”

She smiled.

Hope flickered inside the candle between my children, my husband, my family as I said our prayer before we ate our warm soup, hoping that all children would be protected, would have a beautiful holiday, a meal, a safe home – that all children would continue to shine, even in the dimmest places.

Amy Aves Challenger headshotAmy Aves Challenger is an American expat and writer/artist living in Switzerland. She is a contributor to The MOPS Magazine and The Huffington Post. Amy mostly writes about topics relating to the marginalized, families and nature. She has been published in The Washington, and Brain, Child Magazine and her poems and short story were published in an anthology by Kind of a Hurricane Press. Her poetry can be read almost daily on Twitter @amychallenger and Instagram.