The Toy Maker

Kareem builds toys to bring joy to his children using the only materials he can find

May 22, 2015

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“I used to travel a lot for work, to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Dubai. I loved travelling on planes. But the last image of planes for us is when they came to bomb us, so I made this to remember the planes I used to love.” 

For more than three years, 65-year-old Kareem and his family tried to ride out the conflict in their village near Homs. Despite never finishing high school, he worked hard building up a successful construction firm, and made a good life for himself and his 14 children. They owned comfortable homes, a large farm and several shops.

But after armed men came to his house and threatened to kill his family unless he handed over his savings, Kareem took the gut-wrenching decision to leave everything behind and become a refugee. “I left Syria for my children because I was afraid that they would come back and kill us all,” he tells me.

He describes the shock he felt when the family first arrived at the camp and saw the white metal shelters where they would have to live. “We looked at the ground and it was all dirt. We looked at the shelter, and we asked ourselves, ”What is this? This is something that we used to put our animals in.”

With no work and little to do but eat and sleep, life in the camp was tedious at first. To pass the time, Kareem constructed a large model airplane for his grandchildren using the only materials he could find – sheets of foam insulation, some wire and string.

Kareem has built other toys for the kids, and used his construction skills to make improvements to the family’s home. Japanese-style dividing walls inside the shelter offer warmth and privacy, and their few possessions are neatly organized in cardboard cupboards and hanging pouches fixed to the walls.

He even built an evaporative refrigerator outside their shelter using sand, rocks and a length of hose. “It kept the food inside really cold, but some children from the camp didn’t know what it was and took it apart,” he laments. His face, framed by his snowy white hair and beard, looks briefly stern before cracking into a wide, mischievous grin. With 18 of his grandchildren living with him in the camp, he knows all about the curiosity of youth.

He longs to return to his farm in Syria, and the simple pleasures he left behind. When I ask him what he misses most, he recalls starting each day with a spoonful of honey from the farm’s beehives, or eating the sweet, dark grapes that grew on the vines. “When we left, the grapes were just starting to get ripe,” he says, full of regret.

Despite his sense of loss, Kareem’s relentless optimism and good humour are reflected on the smiling faces of his grandchildren, who run around his feet playing with another of his creations, a large toy car. Their pleasure, he says, is its own reward. “There’s nothing more precious than the child of your child. When I see my grandchildren playing with the things I make, I become very happy. My stress goes away.”

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Story by Charlie Dunmore, based in Amman, Jordan, published on