My Days with the Syrian Refugees

We walked into her two-room flat in a dilapidated building in a small town outside of Amman, Jordan. She was Syrian, a wife, a mother and a refugee. She welcomed us into her transient home with open arms and a customary drink, a Fanta. As we took our seats on the floor cushions that lined the walls of the empty room, she began to speak of her family’s harrowing escape from their war-ravaged town in Syria. I wanted to know every detail — about their transit by truck through the night, how they had to sleep on top of each other in the suffocating space, and how they nearly starved.

There were eight children, ranging in age from 9 years old down to a baby. Their faces and bodies were dirty beneath their tousled brown hair and piercing dark eyes. Their clothing was ill-fitting and mismatched, but the girls favored pinks and reds and the boys wore t-shirts with large American surf logos. They restlessly wiggled and whispered to each other as they curiously observed our group of strangely-dressed, kempt women. I’m sure they wondered why we weren’t drinking every last drop of the sugary Fanta soda, tempting them just a few feet away.

I quietly began to play peek-a-boo with the youngest boy, covering my eyes with my hands and then flashing the biggest smile I had. He was still in that wobbly walking stage and darting in and out of the room to test his legs…and me. At first he would leap behind his big brother to hide, yet coyly peer round to see if I would continue. After several minutes, I gained his trust and we were soon giggling together from afar. Then the other children began to take notice and engage in the fun. Minutes later, I had three of the girls in my lap marveling at my neatly manicured nails and asking if my ring would be the kind they would get upon marriage. The oldest boys came over to join asking to play the Lego Batman game on my iPhone — they played it like experts! Secretly, so as not to offend their mother’s gracious hospitality, I let each take sips of my soda.

I can’t share their names or our photos together. These children and their parents are “undocumented.” In their refuge from Syria, they now live in the shadows of Jordan, illegally moving from one decaying shelter to the next. The parents can’t safely work, if there is work to be had for them. Sickness and malnutrition in their children is commonplace. School is not an option for any of them. And a Fanta is most certainly a luxury that never touches their lips. My heart swelled as they engulfed me with hugs. And tears streamed down as they begged to leave with me.

Now entering seven years of the Syrian civil war, I have read and seen countless heartbreaking accounts of human tragedies in the media. But nothing prepared me for witnessing the Syrians’ true pain and despair while on a recent trip to Jordan. It came together through an honest conversation with a friend over lunch. I expressed my fatigue working in the tech industry and growing interest in finding more meaningful projects with purpose. Fortunately that sentiment fell on the ears of the right person. Her response was an offer to join her group of five women going to Amman, Jordan to visit the refugee camps.

I recognize that I’m a privileged, white woman living a sheltered life in the heart of Silicon Valley. But I am also deeply concerned about the massive human rights atrocities in Syria (and elsewhere). I am ashamed to represent a world that could do more to end the suffering, but is not. So I felt compelled to go with the hope that my brief encounters and experiences may help amplify the story of the Syrian refugees — that perhaps I could return and inspire one more person to give or advocate on their behalf.

Refuge to Where?

The days started early with an hour drive through Amman traffic and out into the desert. We had been briefed on security policies — always wear your badge, no photos of guards, no photos outside the sanctioned areas, stay with the group, etc. Approaching each camp included multiple checkpoints with armed guards where we had to remove our inappropriate designer sunglasses and flash our badge. I quickly realized that no one gets in or out without papers and process. We first parked in what seemed like a visitor holding area, where we were directed to use the surprisingly clean washrooms alongside several other foreign envoys. I was struck by the conspicuous branding of the United Nations, supporting nations and NGOs — Doctors Without Borders, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, and UNICEF. This branding was omnipresent throughout the camps on the sides of tents, makeshift billboards, even the children’s uniform green Saudi backpacks. As we made our way through the camps by van, I was alarmed by the kilometers of chain link, barbed wire and machine guns that kept people in and others out. Make no mistake, the camps are a type of prison.

Zaatari (مخيم الزعتري) refugee camp, located 10 kilometers east of Mafraq, Jordan, was originally established as a temporary stop for refugees but the nearly 5 square kilometers of Zaatari has become a permanent settlement. It hosts some 80,000 Syrians who have fled the violence in their neighboring country, just 13 kilometers away. Despite the poor living accommodations, lacking food supplies and growing crime, the camp has some vibrancy with market-like structures along the main street where goods like vegetables, basic household equipment and clothes can be purchased. As compared to the sterility of the Azraq camp, the streets meander about lined with metal and canvas shelters many of which have been personalized with art, small gardens or covered entrances. Water is filled by a fleet of trucks in communal water tanks where residents — mostly women and children — collect it with jugs and buckets. Sewage is handled in the same manner. There are two hospitals and nine healthcare centers. Transportation is mostly by foot, bike or donkey-drawn carts along dusty, uneven roads. Households are connected to an electricity network and allowed use for nine hours per day. This means that some industrious families have a TV or radio as the only connection with the outside world. With minimal cell and no wifi service, children risk punishment by huddling near the fences of the visitors entrance with smart phones in hopes of tapping into a network to play games, the exact same games our children play (more here from the UNHCR on the connectivity challenges and opportunities).

Photo Credit: Bethan Staton, Contributor, IRIN Report

Azraq (مخيم أزاق) refugee camp is a stark contrast to Zaatari, which seems to have benefited from its organic and somewhat chaotic growth. Building of Azraq began in 2013 as a “planned development” and lies in the scorching hot, barren desert 20 kilometers from its namesake town of Azraq, Jordan with which there is little interaction due to the distance. Public data shows that approximately 30,000 refugees live in the Azraq camp, but actual reports indicate that some 15,000 have escaped due to the harsh conditions. Rows and rows and rows of white, insulated tin, one-room cabins function as an “upgrade” to the shelters of Zaatari, yet have lacked electricity until recently. The vast 15 kilometer grid of dirt streets make up Villages that are desolate and quiet, often requiring residents to walk long distances for food, water and goods. In one part of the camp, I observed families separated from each other sitting on dirt, only speaking and touching through the small holes of a chain link fence. This was Village 5 and an Associated Press story explains the complexities of how it was “set up as part of an uneasy trade-off between Jordan and international aid agencies trying to speed up admissions of tens of thousands of refugees stranded in remote desert areas on the kingdom’s border” also known as “the berm” (it is worth learning more).

Children of War

The Syrian conflict’s biggest tragedy is the children — innocent victims of our world’s political, religious and economic differences. Close to one in three Syrians registered with the United Nations refugee agency in Jordan are school-aged children between 5 to 17 years old, while UNICEF reports that 2016 was the worst year so far for Syria’s children: at least 647 were injured and 255 were killed or injured while they were at or near school. At least 851 were recruited for conflict, more than double the number recruited in 2015. Millions more have experienced crippling hunger and disease, witnessed killing, or lost someone they love. Ripped from their homes under threat of bombs, guns and now chemical weapons, the Syrian children have fled under the most dangerous and terrifying of circumstances. They have been exposed to conditions that no child should ever, ever see or experience. Now labeled refugees, their youth is defined by risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited. Most have been out of school for months, if not years.

Our first stop was to one of the UNICEF-run schools in Zaatari to meet the children and learn about the programs. We arrived during the morning shift for girls (some schools divide the school day into two shifts to make room for more students and to separate the sexes) and we were briefed by the head administrator and then escorted to a modest playground. The blue and red swings swayed against a backdrop of chain link fencing, this time by design to make the children feel protected and safe. Among the rows of pristine, white canvas structures serving as classrooms, I was struck by the cleanliness of the grounds and orderly manner in which the brightly covered young girls moved between classes of Arabic, math and other core subjects. The students scurried along in pairs and small groups, carrying books in one hand and holding the arms of friends in the other. Their voices were cheery and chatty.

We walked about peeking into classes underway, most only lit by sun rays peering through the windows. Our attempts to be quiet and inconspicuous were futile as the energy of each room escalated with our arrival. I’m not sure if the children’s excitement was because we were distracting from their usual scholastic routine, as any child I’ve known would appreciate; or perhaps it was because we looked funny and out of sorts in our adapted Western fashion; or perhaps we represented hope that the outside world recognized and cared enough to come visit them.

We were summoned into an activity room for the younger children. The girls loudly chanted songs in unison while their friends poked monster puppets from behind a green curtain. I’m not sure the subject of the show, but they delivered it with great intensity and joy. At the same time, the boys yearned to show us their art and in return wanted to see the games on our phones (what was becoming a common theme). I gravitated to four boys with cheeky personalities and a flair for fashion. We were separated by the language barrier, but I saw something familiar in them. I motioned at my camera in request for a photo and they most certainly obliged. As I hid behind my lens, tears welled in my eyes. I knew they were the age of my son. They would be his friends in a different world.

Estimates are that nearly half of Syrian refugee children reportedly show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate 10 times that of children around the world. Therefore a priority is the operation of 12 child and adolescent-friendly spaces in Zaatari and Azraq camps that now serve more than 26,000 of the youth. The one we visited in Zaatari Camp, ironically named Dream Land, includes sports facilities, a sandbox play space, a computer lab (kudos to Google for their sponsorship) and multipurpose rooms where children play games. Classes teach them life skills, including communication, goal setting and time management, and hard skills such as English and computers. Community improvement projects, like mural painting, give them a voice. And the art sessions serve as an avenue to express their emotions and work through painful experiences. On our stop at Dream Land, we joined a group of girls in a lively art class in which we were bonded by our love for drawing colorful daisies, beautiful houses and glowing suns. I also noticed that drawing football games was a popular subject among many of the girls, only to learn that it is often played at the centers with same-sex teams. Of course, the exercise helps the children burn energy and relieve stress, but also learn about teamwork, determination, values and, again, help create some sense of normalcy.

Throughout both Zaatari and Azraq, we saw similar schools and child spaces with smiling, bright-eyed children. There was obvious calm and sanctuary behind these fences within fences. I was able to share so many special moments with the children making sand castles, drawing pictures, playing video games, singing, clapping, giggling and holding their hands. While bursting with compassion and love for them, my heart never felt big enough for what they truly needed — a foundation for them to be able to one day contribute meaningfully to Syria’s reconstruction and thereby hope for a new future.

Spirit of Entrepreneurs

Refugee families arrive to the camps having lost everything. They come with the clothes on their back and only what they can carry. Their homes have been destroyed. Their businesses have been gutted. Their towns hallowed by bombs. If their family unit is still together, they are fragile at best, yet as I saw with the children, the men and women also show strength and resilience to withstand the adversities of the camps. But their relative ease in adapting to the trying environment depends on certain life-sustaining elements for them and their families.

The UN and NGOs play an important role in providing the most basic human needs: shelter, clean water, dry food rations and some (often ill-fitting) clothes and shoes. However obtaining milk or juice for a malnourished child to fixing a pair of broken glasses to obtaining diabetes test strips, going through overstretched, underfunded NGOs can be a tedious, lengthy process. Refugees need more. Humans need more. And more is available, if one has the means to purchase it.

This purchasing power is created in two ways in the camps: through a voucher system and, more importantly, economic development. In addition to whatever funds they brought with them, the UN provides refugees vouchers to pay for cooking and heating gas, as well as $28 a month per person to pay for food which adds up to $140 a month for a family of five. That money helps refugees buy products from shops in the camps. At the same time, certain NGOs are working to help fund more enterprising Syrians via interest-free revolving loans of 500 JD (around $700) to start businesses. The existence of a marketplace (and lack thereof) has been shaped by — and in turn, helped shape — the two noticeably different camp ecosystems, allowing refugees to operate businesses that not only give them an income but a sense of persistence and purpose.

The “Champs-Élysées” in the Zaatari camp has become the heart of daily life there. A far cry from the 8th arrondissement in Paris, the dusty road has an energy and hustle similar to many of the thriving marketplaces of the Middle East or even the favelas of Brazil. We were told there are some 3,000 businesses that make up this marketplace, many of which we saw as we maneuvered around donkey-drawn carts, bikes and people strolling the thoroughfare. I marveled at the diversity of goods and services. There was a shop that sold only little green and yellow parakeets pets sweetly hopping around in small cages. Another shop had bike tires and parts, which I gathered to be essential for servicing the primary means of transportation in the camps. One shop had beautiful gowns in the window, which I learned was a place to rent wedding dresses for the day. In addition to the supermarket, I saw fruit and vegetable stands, a pastry shop, a pizza place and a falafel stand. Many of the businesses have grown without permits or proper infrastructure, which in turn has created more crime and a thriving black market. But all of this seems to be a minor tradeoff both for the authorities, who often turn a blind eye, and for the people of Zaatari, who have found some small way to rebuild their lives through economic empowerment.

Sadly the same can not be found in the Azraq camp, though some attempts are being made to change that with micro-financing programs. Unlike in Zaatari where trade is enhanced by the nearby city of Mafraq, Azraq is twice as far from it’s nearest namesake city making little interaction possible. In an attempt to avoid the many issues that have arisen out of Zaatari’s disorderly economy, Azraq is structured and regulated allowing for little flexibility for the men and women to shape their surroundings. The desolation and despair can be seen and felt upon driving through the quiet, empty gravel roads that lead to a small grouping of carefully organized shop fronts. Yet a spirit and drive still exists, just as in the entrepreneurs I know from home.

We had the opportunity to “shop” in one small store that specialized in household and beauty items, such as face cream, nail polish, hair ties and sunscreen, which we learned was among the most sought after products. Among our group of six women, we probably would have bought every item in that store to offer financial support, but showing some restraint seemed to offer a more essential kind of support — that of profound respect for the operator and his customers. After walking around the market area, we were taken to meet with five business owners and learn more about and contribute to the economic development programs in Azraq.

Together our group of women— with backgrounds as business owners and former/current executives at Amazon, Facebook and Google — spent an hour with five Syrian men and one woman in a lively discussion about how to better their businesses and “market opportunities” in the camp. They represented 5 of the 23 beneficiaries of a micro-financing program, which is supported by PepsiCo AMENA and run through a community based organization in the town of Azraq. Two owned a household goods shop, and the woman ran a business that sold basic electronics and phone accessories. Just as with some of the best American entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, they asked us thoughtful questions about competition, pricing, sourcing, marketing and operations while taking copious notes on our responses. Their eagerness to learn and passion to improve upon their business was the truest reminder that when people are given the freedom and means to actualize their entrepreneurial spirit, it not only leads to increased financial resources but greater happiness for their families, and most importantly self-respect and dignity.

Our team of women sharing a photo op with Syrian business owners in Azraq camp. (Back row: Rita Lahlou & Iman Dakhil; Front row: Christa D’Souza, Stephanie Hannon, Brandee Barker & Gisel Kordestani)

How to Help

The UN has identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, of which more than 6 million are displaced within Syria, and over 4.8 million are outside of Syria. As of writing this, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counted 5,055,732 registered refugees (lack of documentation is a big issue discussed here). Turkey is the largest host country of registered refugees with over 2.9 million, followed by Lebanon with 1 million and Jordan with nearing 700,000 . I can’t pretend to know the true pain and despair of the Syrian refugees, but I saw glimpses of their resilience and strength. I wept along side them and held their hands in hope. And I returned with a promise to do more, say more and be more. Here’s some ideas for how you can help:

  • Learn about the politics. You don’t need to become an expert, but knowing something of the progress, or lack thereof, of the Syrian civil war is important as fellow citizens of this world. Al Assad is murdering his own people while now using chemical warfare against opposition forces. Calling ISIS “evil losers” is a narrow, uniformed characterization of their impact on this country and the world. Please stay informed through the courageous reporting of our international media and updates from the UNHCR.
  • Advocate for aid for the victims. We all mourn the tragic loss of our children at the hands of ISIS as its terror seeps into our countries. Our children are in Syria as well. The U.S. Congress will soon be considering the overall foreign aid budget for fiscal year 2018. I urge you to protect international lifesaving humanitarian assistance, peace-building, and poverty-focused health and development programs in the International Affairs Function 150 account by pushing to fund it at no less than $60 billion in the FY 2018 Budget Resolution. Although this account represents only approximately 1% of the federal budget, it is critical to saving millions of lives and advances U.S. interests overseas. Please raise your voice to Congress to help ensure that any cuts proposed are not enacted.
  • Give what you can. The “Syrian Response” refers to the work being done across the Middle Eastern countries dedicated to supporting the refugees. While all sorts of basic supplies are needed, the NGOs are the experts on how to obtain and distribute goods. Most are moving to a cash/credit system that empowers individuals and families to decide on what they need most, not us. Simply, money helps most: $35 can help give clean, lifesaving water to 7 families in need; $105 can help give 5 families hygiene kits to protect them from disease; $300 can help give emergency food kits to 8 refugees. There are many respected global NGOs providing humanitarian aid toward this crisis. Please consider supporting the tireless efforts of UNICEF for the Syrian children by donating here.

A special thanks to the women who I joined on this trip — Christa, Gisel, Iman, Rita and Steph (#jordangals). You are each remarkable, accomplished, compassionate, powerful women. Together, we shared so many emotional moments that will forever change my viewpoint of the world. I am truly grateful and honored to now call each of you a friend for life.