Holding onto Dreams Amid Nightmares
Very often when I meet Syrian refugees, I hear my family in their voices. I work for a global humanitarian organization, Mercy Corps, and it is my job to deploy to disaster zones with our emergency response team and tell the world the story of what we see. You would think that we would have nothing in common with people living so far away, but so often I am surprised by how familiar their hopes and dreams are to ours.
Take Samir (name has been changed), for example. He’s in his early 20s, about the same age I was when I graduated from Penn State, and before the war in Syria he had been studying computer science. Unlike me, he didn’t graduate. Halfway to completing his degree, he had to flee the violence and found refuge in Jordan’s Za’atari camp.
I met Samir in DreamLand, one of several child-friendly spaces Mercy Corps runs in the refugee camp. Home to some 80,000 Syrian refugees, Za’atari is now essentially Jordan’s fourth largest city. To put it into perspective, that’s as if everyone in State College plus nearly all of Altoona fled their homes and moved to a collection of trailers into 2 square miles of barren land.
Samir showed me around our computer lab in DreamLand. Unable to finish his degree or to go home, he volunteers as a tutor for the kids of the camp. In DreamLand, the children have a chance to escape for a few hours, to play soccer, do arts and crafts, to have little bit of a childhood again.
Samir showed me the little trailer, painted brightly on the outside with colorful scenes of kids on computers, surrounded by rainbows. My mom and sister are educators — my sister teaches history at State College Area High School and my mom is the librarian at Mount Nittany Middle School — and it was fun to hear Samir speak about his students in the same way I have heard my mom and sister describe the kids they work with in their schools.
I asked Samir who the star pupils were, and his smile turned pensive.
“Well there is not one star. But there are about 10 kids in the different sections,” he said. “They have finished all of the classes we have here for them.”
He was worried about what to teach them next. “They are so bright,” he told me. “What is there for them here? Their whole lives have been interrupted.”
And I realized he was talking about himself, too. Samir wasn’t able to bring any documentation of his partially completed university degree, and there’s no way for him to complete his studies in the camp. He is stuck, just waiting, but not knowing for what. So he volunteers in the computer lab, sharing his passion with kids who have little other outlet for their curiosity.
At Mercy Corps, I have many Syrian coworkers. In fact, more than 80 percent of our team members are from the countries we work in. And for Syria, that means many are refugees themselves — and each of them has a hair-raising story of fleeing violent conflict.
One DreamLand volunteer, Mazen (name has been changed) fled with his mother, wife, and children when their home was bombed more than four years ago. Their 3-month-old infant was inside when the house was hit, and they feared the baby was lost. After frantically digging through the rubble, they found the child miraculously unharmed. That’s when they knew they had to leave.
They don’t know what the future holds for them. But here they are, making a community and trying to make sure the kids will still have a future when the conflict ends. Hoping against hope that they will be able to return to Syria and send their kids to school in their homeland again.
I think my mother wanted me to be a teacher. I’m a third-generation Penn Stater, and though I majored in French and studied abroad, I’m fairly certain she expected me to come back to State College and teach French, not travel to war zones in places we heard of only in news reports.
And yet my mother always inspired me to find ways to help others. The Syrians I have come to know remind me of my family in Pennsylvania. They value education and helping others, just like my family does. My older sister teaches history, my mother is a middle school librarian. My grandmother, who has only a high school degree, was inspired as a young mother to make a difference by a woman she met who couldn’t read, so she founded the Mid-State Literacy Council where today adults in Centre County learn to read and write without stigma or criticism.
It’s these role models in my life, like Mazen and his wife are to their children, that pushed me to do what I do now. This infectious hope and determination they exude every single day of their lives makes me want to give back, too.
The Syrians I know do so much with so little — and in the face of unrelenting obstacles. Samir and Mazen and the others are working so hard to build a better life for their communities and just need a boost. If each of us could just do a little more. It’s why I push myself, but you don’t have to have my job to make a difference. As generations of dedicated and philanthropic Penn State students have shown, even from Centre Country people can help — by supporting organizations such as mine to help those fleeing war, by staying informed, or simply by lending a helping hand to someone new in town.
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Child-friendly spaces run by Mercy Corps in Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps are funded in partnership with UNICEF. For more information, visit mercycorps.org.