Getting started in Zaatari

From miles away you know you are close to the refugee camp. The barren landscape of rock and dirt gives way to a white sea of tents and caravans.  The first thing you notice when entering the camp is how almost every person inside is no more than 4 feet tall. Zaatari seems a city entirely made of children–some carrying school bags, others big jugs of water, some just sitting in the shade and taking refuge from the intense sun. This is now one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Space is tight and with every inch there are thousands upon thousands of untold stories of loss, despair, separation, hope, endurance, and just about everything else.

Questscope are a brilliant NGO already working in the camps and leading innovative mentoring and informal education programs for Syrian youth. They have been kind enough to adopt my project. Through their Syrian-led mentoring program, I will be working with 20 Syrian refugee youth on the communications/arts workshops.

I got to spend good time with the Syrian youth mentors. Most of them fled from Daara in Syria. Their school and futures were cut short and many are still separated from their families. One of them is waiting to get married to his fiancee, who remains in Syria. I look forward to getting to know these amazing volunteers more over the next month.

The energy of these Syrian mentors and the child beneficiaries is obvious. Kids are reading, running, playing, and the refugees and Questscope staff are like family. Most of the Syrian mentors greet me with smiles, open arms and are very warm, not once talking about the war that has brought them here, and only talking about how beautiful Syria is.

Today was important as it was the first time I could meet the staff in person and build trust in this project. My Arabic is quite weak and unfortunatley I need a translator, but with time this will not be needed. I was able to present the project to everyone and get their feedback, after which we set up a concrete schedule to perform the workshops. I explained that I am not here to teach or preach or take pictures and runway. I conveyed that I am here to learn from them and work with them to unlock the power of creativity, hope, and perseverance. Communications and art are like roads, I told them. They help deliver what is in our hearts and open up reflection for what is around us and how to make things better. From this creativity can come open new windows for confidence, innovative solutions and new ways to tackle challenges. I stressed that the first rule of the project is to make mistakes. Mistakes are essential for fostering an environment of fearlessly pursuing creative ideas.

The Syrian mentors and counselors  were excited and we agreed that I would perform the workshops 4 days each week for two hours each day. Boys and girls will have to be in separate groups but at the least the girls will be able to participate. I was concerned they would be barred from doing so. I will also make it a point to train the Syrian trainers–both male and female– in these workshops so that they too develop the skills and can carry on the workshops after I leave. This project won’t work without their ownership. The video cameras and equipment I purchased–thanks to funds from the German government–will be left with the refugees and Questscope.

So, good news is the project has the buy-in and clearance of Syrian youth coordinators and the Questscope NGO in Zaatari. There is no real bad news other than my concern on how this project will be received by the Syrian youth and their families. Cultural traditions and social tensions may threaten the success of the workshops. Time will tell. One thing is for sure: the Syrians I met with today are resilient, smiling and eager to learn and rise above the trauma and tragedy that is keeping them from their families, homes and normal lives.

In a place born from fresh tragedies, there are pockets of human resilience and enduring compassion. Let’s see how the project goes.

Stay tuned and please keep sending in your donations for this to work:




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