Before my months in Jordan, I intended to collaborate with the UNHCR in Djibouti, visiting the three refugee camps there that offer little other than shelter. But I was refused entry and had to essentially be treated like I was going to seek asylum. Therefore, my passport was held a hostage; I walked after it, asking at every stage when it would be returned. I knew English. I could ask the staff. Imagine how it feels to be stranded as an actual refugee in an airport without being able to communicate. When I arrived back in the States, I chose to head to Jordan for reasons enumerated in my “Country Proposal.” And I’m glad I made that choice.
Jordan taught me to be resourceful, independent, and relentlessly driven. My first couple of weeks in Jordan were tough because every organization focusing on refugees and psychosocial care seemed to refuse me (sometimes because I was Egyptian). I filled out volunteer forms, returning to my accommodation late in night drenched in sweat from walking the streets. But I learned to leverage my connections and to carve purposeful trails. I ended up volunteering with a local organization, Amani Charity, in Jerash Camp, which is one of the 10 Palestinian camps in Jordan. It hosts 55,000 people and a single doctor. It has two schools, one which is almost out of business (managed by UNRWA). I wanted to be sustainable in my contribution, so I didn’t teach just English. Instead, I taught human-centered design, which I learned during my time with IDEO.org in New York. What does it mean to ideate, prototype, and implement? I hosted for the month of August circles to hone on problems within the camp that mattered to children. “Cutting school!” shouted Mustafa. Two of five children would head out of school during the break only to not return. Usually, it was because the food outside was much better.
During that month, we worked on a proposal to benefit families, improve food within the schools, and teach kids the importance of entrepreneurship. Families from the camp would be designated “Cafeteria Cooks” on a bi-weekly basis, and Amani Charity would host them to oversee the making of simple, delicious sandwiches. Sons and daughters of the families would learn to sell these sandwiches at school for a competitive price. School workers would monitor civic engagement between students. A cut of the profit would go to the bi-weekly family. We were excited about the project, and I wrote a proposal to the heads of the school as well as the directors of the charity. We made a video to promote our idea. But the problem we ran into was bureaucratic. UNRWA, which manages the schools, didn’t approve of the proposal, mentioning that it didn’t have the time nor the resources to implement a prototype. The directors, some of which are the “rich” of Amman, didn’t think that cutting school was the problem. Therefore, decision-makers didn’t believe the people they were attempting to serve. This prompted me to think of what it means to serve and advocate. I became disillusioned with my belief that all people within NGOs were human-centered. I remember sitting at my apartment, disheartened, thinking I let down the children. They designed this program, and maybe I didn’t pitch it well enough. But this only increased my resolve to try harder next time.
After my time with Amani Charity for Children, I chose to volunteer at Happiness Again Center for the month of September. It’s a small organization that tries to increase trust between refugee children and empowers them through psychosocial activities. Each day, a group of Syrian children would come for discussion, exercise, relaxation, and usually free play (music, art, games, and sand). My first days there, I was an outsider and all the children were extremely shy. Their smiles were beautiful but you could often see a broken look in their eyes – as though the world had abandoned them. One time, when asked where he was from, Ahmed said, “I’m from the camps.” I saw Sara, one of the incredible teachers, smile with a sunken heart. She corrected him, “Syria, you’re from Syria”.
I was mostly an observer and participant in the beginning, gradually becoming a trusted person leading some of the activities. I was also tasked with taking photos and writing appropriate captions. I was so happy to constantly be looking for a smile, a moment to cherish, or a memorable event to celebrate. I made several movies for the organization, one of which was posted on their official Facebook website. But the most important lesson I learned as a volunteer there was what recreates home: it is where you can find dignity. This organization provided much-needed assistance to the children without ever promoting them as victims. In fact, I was explicitly told to avoid the word “trauma” and “traumatized” in my captions. “I don’t want the kids to grow up feeling like we were helping them. This must feel like a home to them,” the center’s psychologist insisted.
I felt integrated when the children would high-five me and smile profusely when I made silly faces. I gradually garnered their respect through helping with activities, and they were always fascinated by my accent. They tried to imitate me sometimes only to fail miserably at accentuating Egyptian words. I simply laughed. I also became more friends with the Syrian workers there and slowly learned of their journeys to Jordan. One of them had her house bombed after which she immediately decided to move. Another witnessed several times the army staging scenarios where a reporter would say that an armory of the rebel groups was found and recovered. Army men then piled up their guns into the car with the reporter, leaving the scene with a “successful story”. It was ludicrous. Disgusted with the lies, the family moved.
The border with Syria was opened during my time there, which encouraged me to ask if the workers were ever going to return to Syria. “Not if Bashar is in power,” Sara firmly announced. She mentioned to me that she had cousins who would drive to the border between the two countries only to smell the air of home. I teared a little when I later imagined it in the comfort of my apartment: A Syrian standing with a mental rift between the imagined and actual community – only comforted by the smell of wet sand. But blood is also memorable.
I became a better observer during my time with the Center since we needed to write daily reports about each child, and I needed to provide attentive comments. Asdam who was shy but was now leading the yoga exercise. Anas who was too talkative started to raise his hand before speaking. And Hala who has till this day never spoken.
Foreign visitors to the Center highlighted my foreignness too. “You’re so lucky to know English so well,” Sara once proclaimed. I sat in silence, reflecting on my ability to deploy English almost as a native tongue. I hadn’t considered the immense opportunity even an elementary proficiency of this language provides. I started thinking about it more and more.
This prompted me to understand how Sara, a Syrian refugee in Jordan, and many others have to handle their distinct, telling Arabic accent, similar to how my Arabic screams Egyptian. Refugees often have to acquire a new language in the hopes of “fitting in”. In Germany and many other European countries, refugees don’t get their permanent residence card until they become proficient in the official language. In Jordan, I realized that talking with refugees on a daily basis forces one to rethink about your simplest privileges.
I was once told by Sara that the most prized possessions of refugees are their official papers. This motivated me to reach out to the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) to understand what legal NGOs do to help refugees access protection and resettlement needs. I managed the pre-screening, screening, and intake processes for October. This meant that on a daily basis, I called over 30 refugees to either ask them about their stories in Jordan or to request a follow-up question to complete their stories. After learning about their situation in Jordan in regards to their financial, medical, and protection needs, I wrote reports about the refugees’ stories to lawyers who made the decision of whether not IRAP could help them.
I was a liaison and took great pride in the responsibility of delivering our decision in a humane and compassionate manner to those reaching out for help. I often listened to people on the phone recounting painful memories of being abducted or targeted. Patience was sometimes difficult because I sometimes needed to make over 60 calls. But it became a skill to guide refugees to narrate a coherent timeline of their stories. What became apparent in these phone calls is that the opportunity to work and provide dignity to children was critical in enabling refugees to feel a sense of home, where one can work without fear of being removed. I once met a refugee whose cousin was found illegally working and was thus sent to one of the Syrian camps bordering the country. At IRAP, I read the UN and USA refugee laws to become familiar with the decisions of the lawyers and realized that 0.67% of the world’s refugees – only those most vulnerable – become resettled. That’s nearly 10 people for every 1,500.
Learning to write people’s stories and advocate for them in legal terms became a practice that re-emphasized the importance of language. Terms that only refugees have had to learn become somewhat familiar and the analogous stories force one to appreciate how refugees feel a sense of community – of how a single experience draws various livelihoods together.
Of course, during these months, I found solace in making friends working in similar fields, going on long hikes, and dancing Salsa and Dabkeh. I specifically learned Dabkeh to understand how it brings Palestinians and Syrians together. Dabkeh enables Levants to express themselves. Surprisingly, men hold hands, a rare sight, to dance and celebrate an occasion. I have come to understand dance as a form of communication like English and Arabic. After all, languages ease tensions and are common denominators enabling people to voice their opinions. I aim to reflect further on how dance offers solace as a cultural practice in the future.
From my time in Jordan, I know that failure instructs and determination can make dreams a reality.