What a High School Student Learned Working With Syrian Refugees
Making new friends near the Syrian border
I was supposed to go to California last summer.
In fact, I'd been looking finishing off my junior year of high school by surfing some of the best beaches in the United States and hanging out with friends there. But in May, I watched The White Helmets, a documentary about the Syrian Civil War that opened my eyes to the refugee crisis. I dove into researching every aspect of the crisis and discovered that over a million refugees had fled to the neighboring country of Jordan, most of them not even living in refugee camps but rather, in urban areas under varying conditions. I knew I had to get there and help. I carefully pitched my new idea to my parents, somehow won them over and booked a plane ticket to the Middle East.
While scrolling through Instagram one night, I discovered The Syria Fund, a non-profit organization working to help refugees in Northern Jordan, and reached out to them. They were the sole organization who responded to me and didn’t have a 21 year-old age limit. I met with the founder in NYC and together, we worked out the details of how I would assist the organization in Jordan. The Syria Fund helps run schools to allow Syrian kids to continue their educations.
In July, I embarked on my life-changing trip to Jordan, accompanied by my family. From the moment I stepped foot there, I felt at home. The media gives the Middle East such a bad reputation, but it’s really an incredible corner of the world. And the people there are just so hospitable. We met up with Owais, a teacher and coordinator at The Syria Fund, and together, we drove to the school. We gradually left the bustle of the capital for gaping fields of dried grass. The number of cars on the highway slowly began to drop. We passed a military base and several Syrian border signs on our way, signifying how close we were to the war-torn country. We also passed Azraq Refugee Camp- the second-largest refugee camp in Jordan and home to over 30,000 refugees. I had chills down my spine as I saw thousands of makeshift homes in the form of white cabins. It's one thing to see refugee camps on TV and to be so far away and sheltered that you don't give it another thought, but being right in front of them was a whole other story.
Azraq refugee camp
I was witnessing a place of broken families and lost dreams.
Not long after passing the camp, we pulled up at the school. It was a cute little place, with about 5 different caravans that made up different classrooms. Inspirational phrases and pictures were painted on the caravans, and each one was meant for a different grade. From the moment we arrived, I had kids running up to me and hugging and kissing my cheeks. They were so excited to see us! I got to spend around time in each caravan, meeting all the kids. I gave them the gifts I'd brought them: candy and colored pens. We drew, laughed and talked together.
I met children who had lived through the misery of refugee camps, whose homes had been destroyed by war and those who had lost loved ones. They told me their stories, which brought tears to my eyes. One girl told me she is still afraid when she hears planes after witnessing the airstrike that killed her uncle, and began crying in the middle of her sentence. My heart broke for her and I can only dream of a day where she can sleep in peace, without the nightmares. A thirteen year old boy then told me of his three day journey to cross the Jordanian border.
Too soon, it was time to leave the school, but we got to accompany Owais in delivering food boxes to refugee families living in difficult conditions. Before I'd left for Jordan, I had raised money with a Crowdrise fundraiser and linked it to The Syria Fund so they received all the money. Thanks to many generous donors, I was able to raise nearly $1,000. With that money, we were able to buy food boxes to feed these families. They thanked me, hugged me and invited us in for tea. They didn't have much, but they wanted to give us the little they did have. I was so moved by their kindness, and above all, their resilience.
(The fundraiser can be found here )
Delivering food boxes, house-by-house
Throughout my time volunteering in Jordan, I learned about the injustice that remains prevalent in this world. People who have witnessed atrocity continue to lack support from the privileged. No one chooses to become a refugee, and they need our help. It is important to give back and to stand up for the voiceless, because at the end of the day, we are all just human. We rely on each other. Most importantly, I learned that through catastrophe, hope remains prevalent. Kids continue to laugh and to play, dreaming of the day when they will return to Syria. Adults tell me with a knowing smile that they know their children will be the ones to rebuild their country.