I was supposed to go to California this summer.
In fact, I’d been looking forward to surfing some of the best beaches in the United States and hanging out with friends there for over a year. But in June, I watched The White Helmets, a documentary about the Syrian Civil War that opened my eyes to the refugee crisis. It was impossible now for me to just have fun all summer when there were so many things to be done to help others. I’d always wanted to do humanitarian work abroad, but had never had the opportunity. Most of the countries I usually visited were first-world countries and “luxury” destinations. I dove into researching every aspect of the refugee crisis. I discovered that over a million refugees had fled to the neighboring country of Jordan, most of them not even living in refugee camps but rather, in urban areas under varying conditions. I quickly abandoned my California dreams and knew that I had to go to Jordan this summer. Luckily, my dad also thought it was a great idea!
I discovered The Syria Fund through Instagram and reached out to the cofounder, Lexi. She was very nice and helpful from the start, and I got to meet with her in NYC in late June. The Syria Fund is a non-profit organization that constantly supplies refugee families with food and other critically-needed supplies. They are partners with an organization that founded schools in Jordan to allow Syrian kids to continue their educations. Lexi made it possible for me to visit one of the schools, and we worked out all the details together.
In mid-July, I finally embarked on my life-changing trip to Jordan, accompanied by my family. From the moment I stepped foot there, I felt at home. It’s safe to say that it is the one country that completely stole my heart. The media gives the Middle East such a bad reputation, but it’s really an incredible corner of the world. And the people there are SO hospitable. For the first few days, I was a tourist visiting Petra, the Dead Sea and Jerash, but the day of the school visit quickly arrived. My family and I were in Amman, the capital, on that day, and we drove over early to pick up Owais, one of the school’s teachers and coordinators, at his house. We all chatted and got to know each other before hitting the road for Azraq. Owais was so kind and acted as our tour guide for the day. We gradually left the bustle of the capital for gaping fields of dried grass. The number of cars on the highway slowly began to drop, as Azraq is a pretty isolated city in Northern Jordan. We passed a military base and several Syrian border signs on our way, signifying how close we were to the war-torn country. We also passed Azraq Refugee Camp- the second-largest refugee camp in Jordan and home to over 30,000 refugees. I had chills down my spine as I saw thousands of makeshift homes in the form of white cabins. It’s one thing to see refugee camps on TV and to be so far away and sheltered that you don’t give it another thought, but being right in front of them was a whole other story.
I was witnessing a place of broken families and lost dreams.
Not long after passing the camp, we pulled up at the school. It was such a cute little place, with about 5 different caravans that made up different classrooms. Inspirational phrases and pictures were painted on the caravans, and each one was meant for a different grade. There was a little playground and a mini library as well.
From the moment we arrived, I had kids running up to me and hugging and kissing my cheeks. They were so excited to see us! Owais started off by giving the kids a brief introduction to who I was, and told them how I wanted to write my second book on the Syrian civil war. I then got to spend around 20 minutes in each caravan and meeting all the kids. I gave them the gifts I’d brought them; candy and colored pens. We drew, laughed and talked together. The majority of the kids don’t speak English but I speak some Arabic.
One of the first girls I met was Reem, an 11 year old girl who holds so much curiosity and intelligence in such a tiny body. She showed me around and drew a picture of her school for me. I was so impressed by her passion for learning, kind heart and ability to speak English. I gave her a signed copy of my book, Spirit of the Wind and told her that she could practice reading English this way. She was so happy and cradled that book to her chest for the rest of the morning. Reem inspires me, and she is everything I wanted in a main character: smart, brave and determined. I know the main character for my next book will be based somewhat around her.
I met children who had lived through the misery of refugee camps, whose homes had been destroyed by war and those who had lost loved ones. They told me their stories, which brought tears to my eyes. One girl told me she is still afraid when she hears planes after witnessing the airstrike that killed her uncle. One boy told me of his three day journey to cross the Jordanian border.
Too soon, it was time to leave the school, but we got to accompany Owais in delivering food boxes to refugee families living in difficult conditions. Before I’d left for Jordan, I had raised money with a Crowdrise fundraiser and linked it to The Syria Fund so they got all the money. Thanks to many generous donors, I was able to raise over $800. With that money, we were able to buy food boxes to feed these families. They thanked me, hugged me and invited us in for tea. They didn’t have much, but they wanted to give us the little they did have. I was so moved by their kindness, and above all, their resilience. (The fundraiser can be found here).
Throughout my time volunteering in Jordan, I realized how lucky so many of us have it- we are able to follow our dreams and travel. I learned how important it is to give back to others, and to use that privilege to do good in the world. I also learned that through catastrophe, hope remains prevalent. Kids continue to smile and to play, dreaming of the day when they can go back to Syria. Adults tell me with a knowing smile that they know their children will be the ones to rebuild their country.
If I could give advice to anyone who is considering volunteering abroad, do it! You will go home with a fuller heart, a better understanding of the world and new friends. Just be sure to find a reputable organization, contact them beforehand and work everything out before you leave so that as soon as you arrive, you’re ready to help out!