The Refugee’s Voice: Camps in Jordan
My Experience on Helping Hand USA’s Youth for Jordan 2020 (Part 1)
By Iman Hossain
For the first week of this year, I traveled with 22 other young women with Helping Hand for Relief & Development (HHRD) to the country of Jordan. During this trip, we met, visited, and worked with Syrian and Palestinian families who have fled their homes and have been relocated there. From what they’ve been through, they are known to the world as “refugees”. But after this week, I have come to know that the word “refugee” can’t even begin to describe how much more they are as human beings. First and foremost, I am not a writer. But somehow, I need to share this experience with every and anybody possible. And so, I decided to write.
To say that this has been a life-changing experience would be an understatement. The brief history of the conflict is what I learned in school: Yes, it was shocking. The videos and documentaries I’ve watched: Yes, they were tear-jerking. To find out about these hardships from so far away: Yes, it was moving.
But to see it in person, a few feet away from me, the conditions these people are forced to live in with pain in their eyes, names to a face, and firsthand accounts of the horror and struggle while I held their hands. It shattered my heart, changed my whole perspective, and gave me a reality check. But most importantly, it finally became clear to me just how urgent it is that we help. We are responsible.
The 22 girls that went from the States on this trip are responsible for what we've seen and the people we have listened to. To spread the message, raise money, to do something, and use our voices to amplify theirs to help. We are blessed with so much in our lives. We need to use what we can to help.
And I feel bad that it took me a flight across the world for me to realize this. We are disconnected from this harsh reality by the safety of the news on TV at home. We’ve become desensitized. When I got back home I found it so difficult to properly express to my friends and family just how important it is to do something about this. I wish I could bottle the feelings from this experience and make everyone feel what we felt. And so, I decided to write.
After reading this, I hope that you are empowered to know that you can do something about this. I hope you can keep the people I met and wrote about in your thoughts. I hope you learn about the work HHRD does, and how they truly go to the families who have absolutely no one else to turn to, and realize just how necessary supporting HHRD is. Helping Hand is quite literally their lifeline. Even if it is just sharing my story with someone you know. I hope that they inspire you. That is why I decided to write.
Stories of Syrians: Inside Camps of Jordan
After spending our first few days visiting different programs that HHRD supports in the capital city of Amman, it was time to journey to the outskirts of Al-Mafraq city, very close to the Syrian border, where several refugee camps were in the desert.
I want to include this experience first, because these next two days were the most hard-hitting. These are the families that truly have had everything taken away from them, including hope. We were invited into the homes of a few families and they took the time to sit down with us, in their tents in the desert, and tell their stories, stories that I will remember for the rest of my life.
The camps that we visited were ones that receive no aid other than the support from HHRD. They require quite a bit of travel time to get there, and thus the people that live there have far fewer opportunities and resources than others. They have no one else to turn to. In fact, HHRD aims to focus on these locations.
Monday, January 6, 2020
We were visiting two specific camps outside of Al-Mafraq: Al Dafyaneh and Al Faisaleyah. Throughout our entire trip, we were led by the HHRD team that is based in Jordan. For our visits to the camps, Br. Hesham Al Zayed, a Program Director for HHRD and someone who works directly with these families, led us.
On our way, Br. Hesham pointed out that we were going to be passing the Za'atari refugee camp. I've read about this camp quite a bit, so I was shocked to see it with my own eyes. Za'atari is the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world and was one of the first camps to open in Jordan. It currently houses over 80,000 refugees. Several different non-profit organizations help with the upkeep of Za'atari, including HHRD, who have set up nearly 220 homes inside through the help of donations.
However, we were told that we were not going to be visiting, because of complications with security in entering and general safety concerns. It turns out that some of the families that we were going to be visiting in the other camps used to live in Za'atari, but chose to leave for these safety concerns, which I will address shortly.
As we were passing Za’atari, all I could think of was how enormous it was. This was a refugee camp? This looked like a country of its own. Br. Hesham told us that the residents have set up their own schools and shops within the camp. They are not allowed to leave the camp to work, except through sponsoring by a local Jordanian. In Jordan, it is technically illegal for Syrians to work. And 80,000 refugees are just a small fraction of the amount of Syrians living in these conditions.
Al Dafyaneh Refugee Camp
We finally arrived at the Al Dafyaneh camp. I remember looking out the window of our bus and seeing a flock of sheep herded together and a little boy with no shoes standing beside them. There were about ten families that lived here. Many of the families came from their homes to greet us. They knew and trusted the HHRD staff because HHRD delivers water and supplies to them bi-weekly. The first thing I noticed as we stepped off the bus was how uneven and rocky the ground was. And many of the kids didn't even have proper shoes on. It was also very cold, significantly colder than in the city. And their jackets were not warm enough. And the 'houses' these families were coming from were tents. What if it rains? What happens to their homes when a storm hits? What sort of protection do they have? Nothing.
It was also quite a long drive from the main city to where we ended up stopping in the desert. What if someone in the camp needed to go to the hospital? They would have to make that journey. On foot.
Everyone greeted us so graciously, warmly, and all the kids were so friendly. Holding out their hands, accepting our hugs, wanting to play. How are they so kind, telling us that they are grateful we are here and at the same time having such a pained look in their eyes? It was especially apparent in the children's eyes. A child's eyes should not look as haunted and as wise as eyes that have seen so much suffering the way theirs did.
Br. Hesham Showing Refugee Documentation
The reason for our visit to Al Dafyaneh was to meet and speak with the families, learn about their current situation, and distribute a new bathroom. Br. Hesham showed us an official paper that the refugees had as identification. When fleeing, many did not have a chance to take their passports, so if lucky the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would register them with proper papers.
Old Bathroom in Al Dafyaneh Camp
Before installing the new bathroom, we were taken to see the situation of the current one. This condition was the most shocking to encounter. Quite frankly, it was inhumane. The bathroom for an entire family consisted of a hole in the ground surrounded by cloths held up by wooden sticks. There was no locked door, no sanitation, no sewage system, and no protection. It is extremely dangerous to be outside in the desert in the middle of the night. What if you had to use the bathroom then? They simply could not go. It was nearly impossible to process. No one deserves this. This brings me back to what the HHRD staff and some of the families we met were mentioning about Za'atari. In a camp of over 80,000 people, it is even more unsafe than in the camp we were in for people, especially younger women to be outside in the middle of night, such as in the case of using the bathroom. There have been cases of sexual assault and rape, which is why many families left due to concern for their daughters.
What I had to keep reminding myself through this entire experience, was that these people, not too long ago, could not even imagine living like this. They were successful, they had real homes., families, jobs, education, opportunity, leisure, and safety. It was all taken away from them. In the blink of an eye. That is what is so hard. We met people with different stories of how they got here. But a commonality that stuck out to me with all of them was a longing for their home: Syria. To go back to the way things used to be while feeling trapped and unsure about the future and where to go next.
The most adorable little girl, Saher, led some of us to her mother who we spoke to about her life. Her mother told us that she fled her home about five years ago, with Saher and her son, Muhammad. At the time, she was a second-year university student studying literature. She had to leave everything behind and could not complete her degree. She now works on a farm performing manual labor, earning just half a dollar an hour. It is more expensive to live in Jordan than in the United States, where one U.S. dollar is equal to only 0.7 Jordanian Dinar. Her son, fourteen years old and not able to attend school for years now, works as a street-cleaner for very little pay. He told us that his dream was to go back to school and study again.
A few of us started talking to Muhammad individually. He told us that he appreciated us coming, but he wanted us to spend the day with him. He said that all he wants is quality time spent, because no one comes to visit. We could give him all the supplies and provisions we brought, but this was his wish. I didn't know what to say after that. Quality time. To have a hope of something that we have the luxury of not even thinking about. It shows how having a life in these conditions not only takes a physical toll, but also burdens one’s emotional perspective.
The Heartbreaking Story of Tasef
Tasef is from the city of Hama, Syria. When she left Syria during the crisis, she had to leave her husband and son behind, and travelled with her 5 daughters and 2 other sons. While moving from place to place, they were very scared and confused as to who they had to run from and who was trying to help them, with the threat of both ISIS and the government. They were originally in Za'atari camp upon first coming to Jordan, but left and ended up here. For two years, they struggled, especially Tasef who was not able to sleep at night knowing that her son was not with her. After those two years, she received the news that her son had been killed. She still does not know where her husband. She doesn't even know if he is alive. Four of her daughters got married and one of them was recently divorced. The daughter that was divorced had a son, but her son died as a baby. She also received news that her home was destroyed in Syria. We asked her if she thinks she should go back to Syria. She responded, "Where should I go? I have no home and no family there. But Alhumdullilah" Despite not having any hope, she still says, ‘Alhumdullilah’. This phrase in Islam means she is grateful to God. She said it 6 times during her story. She is still grateful. But she is still struggling daily.
I am so grateful to Tasef and her family for inviting us to listen. It showed me that these people are ordinary people, just like me. So then, why them? Why not me? What did I deserve or do in my life to receive infinitely more than they have? To see the pain in each of their faces as Tasef explained their situation was unbearable. And yet they are so much more kind, grateful, and generous than I will ever be. They have nothing. But their character has everything. And I hope that will count for something. But they have no hope for the future; we have to be their hope. Why do we have so much more in my life than they do? To try to be their hope.
New Bathroom Donated Through HHRD
After meeting with Tasef and her family, it was time to install their new bathroom. Compared to the original one, this bathroom was an actual room with a locked door and roof. There was also a shower head and most importantly, it was clean. We were told that the funding for one of these bathrooms was $1,800. We worked to fill the water tank for the newly installed bathroom and distributed food parcels to the families. It was a blessing to see Tasef’s so happy to receive this gift, but also an unforgettable lesson to see how something we take for granted every single day could change someone's quality of life.
Al Faisaleyah Camp
It was then time to visit the Al Faisaleyah camp. This was a much larger camp, with far more than ten families. And there were so many children. Br. Hesham asked us to gather all of the kids together so that we could include everyone in fun group games and activities. With the help of a speaker, music for the kids started to play and we all got into a circle to dance together. They were really enjoying this activity and I knew that something like this was so special and rare to happen. We needed to make every second count to make their day even a little more joyful.
Group Activities: Dabke
Suddenly, the speaker changed and Arabic music started to play. A group of adults that were sitting and watching the activities suddenly sprang up and started dancing Dabke. Dabke is an Arabic folk dance that is often performed on special occasions and is popular in both Syria and Jordan.
It was so astonishing to see the transformation to faces that were smiling and filled with such energy, and was quite honestly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. I could tell that this moment reminded them of home. And this brings me back to how important Syria is to these people. It is their identity. Their identity is their last hope that they cling on to. And music brought back these memories.
Delivery of Hygiene Kits
After such a moving experience, we started the distribution of food parcels, winter clothing, and hygiene kits to all the families. These hygiene kits prepared by HHRD were extremely valuable, because they had necessities such as soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and gas for heating. We also had the opportunity to give the children toys and stuffed animals, because often for these kids something as simple as a fun item to play with can be almost as important to their well-being as food and clothing.
Mother and Daughter in Al Faisaleyah Camp
We were able to visit and listen to another family’s story. In this tent, two families are living together because each of the mothers have lost their husband nearly five years ago. Combined, these women have six children with them. They described how they are living now to us as "waiting for their death," without clean water, money, or even proper clothes to keep their children warm through the harsh winter in the desert.
The mothers described how helpless they are for their children. Their children are young and are not able to understand the situation, asking for their father and wanting things. The mothers told us how they don't know how to give them things to hope and dream for. They don't even know how to hope and dream themselves anymore. Even something that seemed so simple to me, having a goal or aspiration, has been taken away from them.
This day was a day that changed my life. It truly put how fortunate and privileged I am into perspective. But it also gave me clarity on how imperative it is that I do something about this when I get back. Many of the necessities, supplies, and care that these families receive are because of HHRD’s effort to spread awareness and fundraise. HHRD is doing great work at providing clean water, food, bathrooms, clothing, and other immediate relief supplies directly to those who need it most. And they are very transparent in the way of doing so, because I’ve seen the result of money donated to the organization in the bathroom and in the gifts. Many humanitarian organizations focus their efforts on long-term development programs to assist in crises such as these. While HHRD does have sustaining program efforts (as I will discuss later), what is honestly the most pressing matter is providing the basic, life-sustaining provisions. Without them, these families could not survive, let alone attempt for other efforts at regaining development. And this is only exclusively accomplished through non-profit fundraising and donations.
The bathroom that was provided for Tasef was made possible by donations to Helping Hand’s Water for Life Campaign.
The clothing and supplies distributed at both camps are known as In-Kind Gifts and were a result of Helping Hand donations.
Helping Hand also as a Food Support Program for Syrian refugees to have food packages if needed.
Think that donating won’t accomplish anything? We saw that the restroom that was installed in the Al Dafyaneh camp was not installed anywhere in Al Faisaleyah, a camp with significantly more families. A few hours after returning to Amman from visiting this camp, the 22 of us decided to start a fundraiser for a bathroom there. While we were still in Jordan, we each contacted our communities back home and started with a goal of $1,800 (the cost of one bathroom). Within just two weeks after returning home, the overwhelming reception we received had us change our goal numerous times to ultimately raise over $12,000 and we are now going to be able to donate 7 restrooms to this camp.
Iman is a 20-year-old Muslim from South Florida and is currently a second-year engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania.