This is a reflection written by Nadia Schroeder, daughter of Curt Rhodes, after she visited Zaatari Camp a few weeks ago.
“What would you like Americans to know? What is your message to Americans?” We asked a group of Syrian refugees in the Zaatari Refugee Camp. “Syrians love life.” “And we are fahmaneen,” which means “we are not ignorant, but rather perceptive, cultured, and knowledgeable.”
This was a statement we heard many times throughout the day we spent at Zaatari. “We are not, as many view us, ‘pathetic and uneducated refugees’” one young man in his early 30’s said. “But rather we have a lot to offer—many of us were leaders in our communities (pointing to some of the group), he was the headmaster of a school, I was an engineer, she studied counseling and psychology…”
A few weeks ago, my husband and I returned to Kansas City from a trip to see my parents in Jordan, where we had the chance to visit Zaatari Refugee Camp in Mafraq, Jordan, which is “home” to around 85,000 Syrian Refugees.
My father directs a social enterprise in Jordan called Questscope, whose niche is providing community-lead mentoring and non-formal education opportunities to young people throughout Jordan and the region. They were one of the first NGOs in the Zaatari camp to employ Syrians and train a group of Syrian volunteers to research the needs of their community and then present to Questscope their findings and recommendations. For me personally, this visit to Zaatari held extra importance since I had, before moving to Kanas City in 2012, spent three years studying Arabic in Damascus.
We spent the day at Zaatari camp talking, playing ping pong, and eating lunch with a group of 20+ Syrian men and women in their 20’s and 30’s. Most were married, most had children, and all except one had university degrees. Among them were teachers, engineers, counselors. We sat together for a few hours and talked. We talked about the future, the improvements they would like in the camp, and about their hopes and plans for themselves and their children.
When we asked about their hopes for the future we heard varied responses: “What future? What hope do we have? In Syria we used to think and plan ahead, two years, three years, now we try to just think of the present—of our wife, our kids. We have to keep living life…” Another said, “Syria is destroyed. So many have lost their lives. There is nothing for us there. And there is nothing for us here. Our children can’t go on to university so it’s hard to motivate them to study in school. We can’t work.”
His friend interrupted, “Lebanon, during its civil war, was destroyed and yet in five years it was completely rebuilt. We will go back and rebuild Syria and make it even better than it was before!” Everyone clapped and cheered loudly…then another added, “but when will we go back? 5 years from now? More like in 20 years!” My husband was fighting back tears when one young husband said, “When I came here I thought I would be here for two months…it’s been two and half years.” One of the women said, “Everyone here says ‘when I go back, I’ll….’” Another woman added, “when we think of those still in Syria we say both ‘lucky them!’ and in the same breath, ‘God help them.’”
The needs even in the camp are great: full-time electricity, better sanitation, transport in the sizable camp-city, opportunities for work, better schools, and access to higher education. And I would add one more—hope. Hope comes from using your talents and skills to work, to give, to contribute, to actively make your situation and others better.
I really saw how through Questscope’s programs in the camp—a space and a building within the confines of the camp, where Syrians themselves are working and volunteering—are empowering Syrians to use their talents and abilities to serve their community.
They mentor and counsel kids using sports, art, theater, and poetry. Kids and adults have an open space where they can play soccer, put on plays, and talk about the trauma that has happened in their lives. There are interesting and engaging courses they can take. Even aside from the kids in the program, the Syrian mentors themselves have changed—their potential, skills, and talents are being used.
When we were about to leave one of the young ladies, Bana, came up to me, took off her ring, and pushed it into my hand, “remember us” she said. I tried to refuse thinking “how can I accept this from someone who has so little!” And yet she insisted. I took off my gold earrings and tried to discretely put them in her hands. She pulled me aside and said, “You can’t give me anything. I didn’t give this to you so you would. You must accept it—and remember us.” Later, after returning to Kansas City, I thought of the story in the New Testament, about the woman who poured an expensive bottle of perfume on Jesus’s feet, and he said, “wherever the gospel is heard, her story will be told..”
What I am left with after visiting Zaatari camp is this: that the Syrians are just like my friends and I in Kansas City. They are educated and ambitious, full of hopes and dreams and plans, connected to the world, with cell phones and facebook accounts, full of talents and skills. Yet they are waiting in a camp, where most look upon them as if they were passive beneficiaries—needy, with nothing to contribute. Yet they have so much to give!
As the plane landed in Kansas City I teared up—to come home! To your own city, your home, your yard smelling of fresh green grass…and I thought of our new friends in Zaatari who can’t go home. How can I—can we—not forget? How do we remember Syrians and give support to them?