Mohammed’s question for the pope was simple but profound: “Will the world be again as it was in the past?”
Which past he’s referring to is hard to know. Mohammed Al Najjar was only 10 in 2015 when he wrote those words in a letter to the pontiff.
His missive is one of 30 that appears in “Dear Pope Francis” (Loyola), a collection of letters and drawings from children around the world. It is the only letter from a Muslim.
Mohammed and his family had been displaced by civil war from Eastern Ghouta, Syria, to Damascus. The boy was attending a school established by the Jesuit Refugee Service when he was asked if he wanted to participate in the book project.
Mohammed did not know who Pope Francis was, so Tony Homsy S.J., who was then director of the Damascus JRS program, explained. Mohammed quickly equated Francis with “a great Shiekh or Imam of Christians,” Homsy recalls. After some hesitation, he penned his question, along with a drawing of a boy playing with a purple ball on a sunny day, surrounded by trees and flowers.
“Dear Pope Francis” was published in February last year and became a bestseller.
Shortly after Mohammed wrote his letter, however, Homsy lost touch with the boy, who had been forced to move with his family to another part of the city. Amid the news of bombings and worse, Homsy wondered whether Mohammed was safe.
Homsy, who now lives in Lebanon, recently sent a messenger to find the boy and give him a copy of the new Arabic translation of the pope’s book, “Azizi Al Baba Francis” (Dar El-Machreq), which is now available across the Middle East.
Combing through records, Homsy and the messenger, Joseph Kobal, were able to track down Mohammed. The boy is flourishing, Kobal reports, despite living in trying conditions. (Kobal’s information was corroborated by a translator for The Washington Post.)
Mohammed is now in eighth grade. He attends a free Islamic boarding school in Damascus. His family members — his parents, three younger siblings, grandparent, two aunts — are living in a small house several miles away. Mohammed’s father works as a barber; his mother stays home, sometimes selling her knitting.
Mohammed sees his brothers (now in sixth grade and second grade) and his sister (in kindergarten) on Thursdays and Fridays when he comes back home from school. His hobbies are jogging and soccer.
Looking through the new edition of the book, Mohammed again saw the words he had written — and the response from Pope Francis:
“There are those who manufacture weapons so that people fight each other and wage war. There are people who have hate in their hearts. There are people who are interested only in money and would sell everything for it. They would even sell other people. This is terrible. This is suffering. But, you know, this suffering is destined to end. It is not forever. Suffering is to be lived with hope. We are not prisoners of suffering. It is just as you have expressed in your drawing: with the sun, the flowers, the trees, and your smile as you fly in the air playing ball.”
Mohammed himself offered a similarly hopeful message, telling Kobal that he would like the children of the world to unite in peace regardless of their beliefs. Together, he said, “they would be strong, but if they were divided, they would fall.”
And yet, Mohammed still wonders about his plight and that of his fellow Syrians.
Asked what question he would pose to the pope now, Mohammed responded: “Do you feel our suffering in Syria?”
Nora Krug is a writer and editor in Book World.