Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 9, 2015

“What are things like in America?” – Letters from Aleppo (Part 1 of 3)

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on December 9, 2015

Jeff Kaliner teaches a homeland security class at the Clark County Skills Center in Vancouver, WA.  His students wrote most of this post.

Letters From Aleppo

“I am constantly thinking about how I am going to die. I’m not really scared but I feel nervous as if when I die I won’t have contributed enough to the cause.”

These words were written by a student in my high school homeland security class. The assignment was to step into the shoes of a child living in Aleppo and write a letter to a pen pal, relative or friend in the United States. Specifically, I asked the students to describe what they saw, heard and felt.

After a few weeks of studying the conflict, I was curious how teenagers from southwest Washington State comprehend the events taking place in Aleppo. In other words, how might twenty young people living in the United States make sense of over 10,000 dead children in Syria?

A sampling of the responses appear below (and in subsequent posts).

Dear Kelsie and Becca,

How are you doing?  I hear that fall has finally hit the states. Is it cold there now?

It’s getting rough over here in Aleppo. Yesterday a missile landed across the road from us. It didn’t go off right away, but when it did it destroyed most of the houses on that side plus part of our upstairs…where Kyle sleeps. Thank God he wasn’t there at the time. He was busy helping Dad deliver new ammunition to some of the other rebel fighters.

They shut school down a while ago. In a way I’m so glad they did, it was getting really difficult going there in peace. A lot of the teens there are children of regime fighters and since my dad (as you know) is a rebel fighter, they really don’t like me or my siblings. I would walk the halls in fear of my life!

Do you have to worry about that in the United States? I really wish we were there. But I am glad to being doing my part to help the rebel fighters. Kyle is fourteen now and he is very strong and has a good shot, so they asked him to help out. Mom was really hesitant about letting him go with the men. We worry that he is now a target for ISIS.

Jessica and Kendra are afraid to venture far from the house. I don’t think they will ever get used to the missiles and the guns firing constantly. I don’t know if I will. At night sometimes they will crawl into my bed. I used to send them back to their room. But now I let them stay with me. I tell them stories and try to help them remember the way things used to be. Jessica is only nine and Kendra is only seven, but the way they talk and the look they get in their eyes sometimes shows age beyond their years.

They rarely talk like they used to. So whenever Jessica brings up her love of chickens or a bird she found, or when Kendra talks about candy and The Hobbit movies, we rejoice inside and encourage them to keep talking.

The other day Jennesa and I took the girls outside to explore a bit and we found a kitten. You should’ve been there to hear their squeals of joy. They laughed and jumped up and down for ages. I had tears in my eyes, it made me so happy to see them happy. Surprisingly Mom let us keep it. I guess she missed having the cats and it helps occupy the girls when we are trapped inside.

Many a time I wish that we were far away from here. Away from the fighting, away from the dust and constant fear. But I am glad that we are here to help the people, to be doing our part. ISIS and Assad must fall. I dream, as I know we all do, of better days. Where the air will be clean of debris from the blown up buildings, where my siblings can play in the streets without fear of a sniper or a sudden attack. I have hope. That day will come soon. With much love

Your cousin,

Kira Goodell



Dear Sara,

I wish I could be where you are, it’s getting really bad here.

It’s louder than usual, more bombs are going off now and more of the kids around town have gone missing. At first we started looking for them but many of us have given up.

Now our parents keep us in at night to avoid being taken or getting lost. That means we really don’t go out much anymore.

How are you? What are things like in America?

Talk soon.

Sidney Childers


Dear Pen-Pal,

Greetings from Syria!  I am a 19 year old girl who lives in Aleppo.   I help my mother take care of the rest of my family which consists of an older brother and two little brothers.  My father is fighting with revolutionaries against Assad’s Regime.

My town is constantly being hit with gunfire, rockets, and shelling.  Being out on the streets is too dangerous so we stay inside most of the time.   When there is a break in the fighting I take my little brothers to the balcony of our house where I teach them their alphabet and numbers. (They’re ages 5 and 3.)

My older brother helps my father with making bombs to use against Assad’s Regime.

When a family member leaves the house there is a possibility of them not returning.  So we treat each day as though it might be our last.  I am not afraid of losing my family for I know that when I do lose them I will see them again with God and that they will have died a martyr’s death.

What is it like over in America???

Is there any fighting where you live??

Will be awaiting your letter.


Tiffany Miller

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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 9, 2015 @ 6:39 am

Thanks Chris! Great assignment and response. When I was small almost all my friends and myself had pen pals overseas or domestically in USA. Mine was in Pike County, KY, which when we exchanged visits looked like No-Man’s-Land in WWI.

Do kids have real pen pals overseas now?

Comment by Scott Winegar

December 9, 2015 @ 2:14 pm

Jeff, what a great and imaginative assignment. The challenge of getting teens to understand geopolitics, and how that translates to conditions on the ground, is a tough one. In order to complete the assignment, your students first had understand the conflict, and the influencing actors. My compliments to your approach. Even if your students do not end up working in the homeland security enterprise, they will be better informed citizens, and perhaps gain an understanding of how international conflict influence security at home. Good work.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

December 9, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

I thought this was a nice assignment as well, and that the students expressed an admirable degree of overall empathy and insight. But I couldn’t help but notice how they also reflected the U.S. government narrative on Syria to a word – which is, of course, in reality at least extremely misleading if not often downright false often times. It also leaves out at least as much information as it includes, and if included would paint a fundamentally different and certainly more complex, multi-dimensional picture of what’s going on there- or how it is probably often experienced. I hope these students were at some point offered more accurate, complex material about Syria than they seem to have been. I’m sure they could handle it.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 10, 2015 @ 7:11 am

IMO Syria now is largely a war of various Islamic sects but I believe the Russians are in Syria to stay for good.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 10, 2015 @ 2:33 pm

Bill, the Russians were already in Syria before the civil war began. It’s the location of their only Middle East military base.

And am I the only one who thinks a high school course on homeland security is a little odd? While this particular exercise seems like a good way for students to think about how others, particularly in war zones, live I have a hard time imagining that this is the best use of a year’s course for students at that age. Knowledge of NIMS might not be the best thing high school students could learn at that age. Or framing a lot of political science, history, or international topics in a security-centric manner.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

December 12, 2015 @ 10:43 am

Arnold, I was just about to post the same info about Russia’s prior presence in Syria, and its base, etc. But I think you make a good point questioning the appropriateness of a Homeland Security course within the larger High School curriculum, and its opportunity costs, so to speak. My issue was how well it would be taught, in terms of the academic knowledge base of the potential teachers at that level (and that statement has nothing to do with Jeff specifically, who I don’t even know). I say this in part because I’ve been very disappointed by the substandard nature of the Homeland Security curriculum and quality of instruction at my own university, which is one of the largest in the country. I do think most high school students can generally understand whatever you give them, if they’re given competent materials, at least with a little help (I’m thinking Jr and Sr level). And because they literally grew up on the internet, many of them also know a lot more about some things than you might think (and sometimes including their instructors, depending on the subject – which can be problem. But I would also expect them to be less critical overall and less able or willing to challenge the materials and information they might be given, which is my concern if they’re only given materials that might as well have been printed out of the White House or Pentagon.

But back to Syria, Bill, what’ going on in Syria is a proxy war to end all proxy wars, with many international players/intruders funding the various barely anything other than terrorist groups and their spin-offs or affiliates (I don’t think sects is as accurate a term). As Arnold said, Syria is Russia’s only real satellite nation of the Arab nations, and it is also the only one that isn’t considered one of ours at this point (remember, Iran is not an Arab nation) – hence our maniacal desire for regime change at any cost (and the recent discovery of tons of new resources off their coast – which is apparently okay, because we’re America, right – and, well, what was God thinking putting our oil under Middle East soil…

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