For now, the suburbs of Amman, Jordan are my home. Earlier this year, I wouldn’t have expected to find myself in the Middle East. But during one of my classes at Long Beach State in Southern California, I felt my heart hurting from the graphic picture my Syrian professor painted of the Syria conflict. I felt a sense of urgency to try alleviating some of the suffering, as she outlined the mass killing of innocent civilians. Whether it was an eight-year-old boy or a four-month-old baby, I couldn’t get over the fact that human blood was being spilled as I was enjoying college in sunny California. One story in specific that really pushed me over the edge was a story my teacher heard from one of her friends in Damascus, what until then seemed to be the only safe city in Syria. Two members of her friend’s family came out of hiding in their homes to help a neighbor, whose body lay in the street. But then a sniper who had shot the neighbor decided to take their lives too.
Making the story resonate even more was the fact that one of three people killed was just 20 years old, like me. What was the sin of those helpful people? Why did they have to die?
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” That quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. has stuck with me throughout my early adult life. I have tried to take it to heart, to make sure I do not fall indifferent about important matters. I believe that it is when we think we can no longer make a difference that our lives truly come to an end. This quotation resonated more than ever after my Syrian teacher’s personalized stories from the conflict.
So I headed to the Middle East, to help alleviate some of the suffering and to try to humanize the conflict. I arrived about three weeks ago. I am making several trips to the Syrian-Jordanian border each week. And each week, I prepare myself for what I may encounter.
Despite the bleak conditions, the first woman I met was all smiles. Her name is Jasmine, she was in the Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS) compound getting medical care for her baby girl Suram, just 16-months-old. After talking to her a little while I found out the difficulties behind the constant smile. She and her family, like many of the other 33,000 refugees in the camp, had come with no money. However, they clung on to the hope that they could return to their homes in Syria someday soon. Before escaping Syria, Jasmine hid in her basement with her newborn child and her husband. They couldn’t sleep with the constant bombings overhead. Their house was blown to bits just as they were escaping and they made it to safety just in the nick of time. Many of her family members still live in Syria and, unfortunately, several of them have been killed.
I am documenting her story and others. But I don’t just want to be just a journalist in the camp, just an observer. I want to help civilians, where it counts. So, with the help of friends and family I have raised money and collected medical supplies to deliver to the Za’atri Camp, which is less than 15 kilometers from Syria. Unfortunately, conditions have gotten worse there by the day. Over the past two weeks there have been several protests that have rocked the camp (refugees protesting over the helplessness of their situation). One refugee said, “It wasn’t a riot but a plea for help.” Winter is coming, and I don’t know how to give this justice, but newborns babies passed away last Monday night due to the already harsh weather. The camp saw horrific sandstorms and is in a very vulnerable area. Over 100 tents blew away in the storm and many were left tent-less during the night. I would say homeless but that is already the case, since they had to leave their houses across the border in Syria.
So far, my work in the camp has been a struggle. One such challenge I’ve encountered is filming and taking pictures. Despite receiving the green light from the Ministry of Interior to report from the camps, many families do not want their picture taken or their voices recorded because they are afraid the Syrian government will hunt down their families, who mostly remain in Syria. I would say 90% of refugees have this worry. So getting a refugee to tell his or her story on camera has been rare. Since my goal is to be a voice for these refugees and try to humanize my conflict, I have had to rely on my writing. I just hope I can do their situation justice.
Just when I started to question if I was really breaking the language barrier, a friend reminded me by saying, “You don’t need Arabic skills, your actions and smile do all the talking.” As for getting people’s stories out to the world, I have been blogging on my help4refugees.org page and I am finding other outlets to share my writing, pictures, and video reports. My goal is to humanize this conflict for those not able to see the suffering up close.
The difficulties – and the tragedies – are many. But, that is no reason to turn my back on the situation. Whenever I begin to doubt my efforts I think about how this project is much bigger than just me. It is about the 84-year old man who sent a phone call to my home in California, showing his support for humanitarian work. It is the 12-year old girl that donated a couple of quarters to our cause at the farmer’s market fundraiser. It is the Facebook message from an old friend asking to explain the conditions in the refugee camp so that he can better understand what’s happening. It is the Facebook comments on the pictures I share from the refugee camp.
It is continuous support from everyone that keeps me going. Because when I am in the camp, I don’t feel like it is just me in the camp, also the thousands of supporters back home. The cause is much bigger than one person, or a few people who have helped along the way, it’s about building a bridge between the people back home and the people I meet in the refugee camp. It’s a way to show how we are connected and that it is not our constructed differences that define us, but rather our innate similarities. It reminds us of what Gandhi and Mother Teresa preached: to share life with one another and to help others when they need it most.
It is this purpose that is now my personal focus. A humanitarian aid friend in South Sudan once told me, “We are to love no matter what, and it is in the ‘no matter what’ that the strength of love is defined.” Many days of the year it is this quotation that keeps me focused and determined to make the world a bit more peaceful, a bit more interconnected, and a bit more compassionate.
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