This was written by one of our humanitarian volunteers, D’vorah Kost.
One morning our van (the humanitarian van, and children’s team) separated from the caravan (of medical teams) on our way to Kitteh, a village near Jerash, in northern Jordan. We were heading to the mayor’s house, which would be our clinic for that day, serving Syrian refugees from neighboring areas. Our van of 6 volunteers finally arrived, loaded with supplies to entertain and play with children. A shy young boy approached with a tray-full of tea glasses. I heard someone comment, ‘be careful, they don’t have sanitary conditions for washing the glasses’. I decided to drink the tea anyway, in gratitude for their unceasing value of hospitality. On the spacious grass outside the house the children and parents were lining up to receive the toys and clothes, diapers, shampoo, shoes and anything we had to offer. Other refugees settled in for the wait to see the medical volunteers.
Over the past 4 years, the tragedy of Syria stirred my heart daily. With Bashar Al-Assad holding onto power that most Syrian people do not support, rebel groups fighting back, government forces employing horrific tactics to inflict unfathomable suffering in order to maintain Assad’s position, factions dividing and warring with no end in sight, cities and citizens decimated, hundreds of thousands killed or injured, millions displaced and more such victims daily, how can one not despair ? What will it take to put an end to this destruction??
What could i do to help?
I and many others send money, donate goods, sign petitions and write letters. These actions are important. Still we feel helpless and wonder why those with power and political leadership have not yet implemented a non-violent solution. Some suggest the best thing to do is to help the innocent victims of war who are fleeing for their lives. I try to imagine the trauma of being a refugee, with losses unfathomable, and challenges unending. I can’t come close. So I decided that meeting them face to face would be one way to begin to understand, and also pull me out of the painful state of helplessness.
I am grateful to have been able to volunteer my time and energy in Jordan, and assist the refugees directly, under the auspices of Salaam Cultural Museum, an NGO run out of a small neighborhood office a mile from my home in Seattle, Washington. Directed by powerhouses Rita Zawaideh and Eiad Sayed, who are fueled by a limitless compassionate energy, SCM sponsors medical/humanitarian missions to Jordan every 6 weeks. Teams of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dentists, therapists, childcare workers, journalists, lawyers, humanitarians, etc, from the US and other countries, along with volunteers living in Amman, provide treatment, medication, medical equipment, eye glasses, emotional support and material goods to Syrian refugees in Amman and northern Jordan.
Never having embarked on any travel remotely similar to this mission, i admittedly had my share of hopes and fears: I hoped I could be of real help to Syrian refugees while pushing down my fear that i would not be able to emotionally handle their pain up close and personal or feel discouraged by the smallness of our impact compared to the enormity of the crisis.
I knew that I would be inspired by fellow volunteers and also feared I would feel inadequate compared to them.
I hoped I would be be physically strong and energized to do whatever i would be called upon to do and i feared that i would be too tired to make it through a full day.
I hoped that I would adapt easily to anything unfamiliar yet worried that I wouldn’t sleep well in a bed too hard, with pillows too thick.
Fortunately my hopes won hands down over my fears. How? By being present and giving all that I am capable of giving, while knowing that my fellow volunteers were doing the exact same thing. I was on a “Medical Mission”, which entails having a powerful sense of purpose and meaningfulness in collective action.
Every day for 6 days, we packed 7 vans full of supplies and volunteers and ventured out to various sites, setting up a ‘clinic-for-a day’ in whatever settings had been pre-arranged, from urban community centers to rural tented camps. One room or tent would become a dental clinic, another for skin conditions, OB-GYN, a pharmacy, general medicine, psychiatry, etc, and then a waiting area, a place where humanitarian supplies are dispensed, and an area for the children to gather.
When I signed on to the mission, I was expecting to serve as a social worker (the career I enjoyed for 30 years, now retired) but the numbers and needs of the children were more pressing. So I donned the hat of childcare worker.
I did, in fact, prepare in advance for working with children. Before leaving Seattle, I consulted my puppeteer friend, and a children’s dance teacher, from whom i received an ample supply of dancing scarves of many colors. I had packed into my suitcase miniature soap bubbles; pipe cleaners; balloons; blow-up beach balls; glow-in-the-dark bracelets; harmonicas; flutes; finger puppets; facepaint; kite-making supplies, and a very special steel drum, that gonged out magical sounds. Along with a heart full of longing to bring a little joy.
Intention goes a long way. So does being part of a team. We were 4- 6 adults whose job was to engage the children in whatever ways we could: making bracelets from mini-rubberbands (they LOVED these bracelets), keeping a balloon in the air, kicking a soccer ball, creating a mural, or jumping rope, inventing games on the spot.
In spite of confusion and loss and whatever horrors they witnessed, children are children, and still marveled at the soap bubbles, delighted in the music, chased after balls and each other, danced with colored scarves, colored intently with crayons on paper, unconcerned that there was no firm surface to set their paper on. They lay the paper on the rocky ground without hesitation. How we take for granted desks and tables! It was so gratifying to see these children smiling and laughing. Of course there were also those who didn’t, whose blank expression never changed, who clung to a parent or older sibling, who clearly required more time, safety and trust to even begin to heal the damage to their vulnerable psyches.
That is where the Malki/Salaam Children’s Center comes in. This safe, educational and enriching haven, directed by Dr. Shafik Amer, psychiatrist from Syria, was set up in Amman in the past year and opened in January to serve the more traumatized Syrian children, thanks to the funding, planning and labor of many individuals, most notably Dr. Lama Shoukfeh, Reem Atassi, Beryl Cheal.
Every weekday morning 15-20 children would attend the center, and through play and art, music and movement, they would create and express themselves, develop relationships with the teachers and Dr. Shafik, begin to trust again, and open to healing.
Our team had the privilege of meeting the children of the first 3-month session. They put on a beautiful show for us, with song and story and skit. They had created it for Mother’s Day (Mar 21, in the Middle East) and had performed it for their mothers one week prior. Seeing these resilient children sing out with passion and grace, we could not keep from weeping.
Unlike the volunteers on the medical team, we childcare workers didn’t hear the children’s specific stories of the traumas they experienced.
Clearly, they just needed to play. And through their play, they are better able to recover the inherent child- joy that every child deserves, and move forward into life, with a semblance of safety.
Then there were the babes in arms. So many babies, so many mothers and fathers.
Adults would sit quietly in the waiting area, until their turn to see a doctor, to be diagnosed, to get something for the pain. To be heard. To be seen. To be respected as a human being deserving of health care and life.
One baby in arms would not stop crying. So I stood nearby and played a flute. A simple tone, a simple song, and the baby listened. He had to stop crying in order to listen, and he did. The offer of music. A song. A moment of distraction and perhaps comfort, or even pleasure. Music can do that.
Instruments were a big hit. I had brought a few harmonicas, flutes, shakers, drums. By the end of the week, they had been dispensed to the refugee communities. I wish I had brought more.
At the end of the day, we joined our comrades, shared wonderful meals and stories, challenges, and tears. One evening we toasted a newly-engaged couple who had met on a prior mission. Another eve we went out for traditional Jordanian ice cream that was rhythmically pounded into the proper texture. Often we would commiserate deeply at the magnitude of need, and agonize for what is not in our power to change, eg the wound care team distressed over the inevitability that the local clinic will not follow the best protocol for healing wounds after we leave. We wonder about how much of a difference we can really make. And then we remember the ones we were able to help today: e.g children whose frowns turned to smiles, people now vaccinated, given injections to reverse infections, many who received necessary medication, pain relief, dental care, those helped by the psychiatry team, the many who were happy to see better through new eyeglasses.
Perhaps a drop in the bucket, but drop by drop a stream becomes a river.
Tear by tear and hug by hug our hearts opened more. We all left with more people to love .
“There she was, a woman veiled in black and only her eyes visible. She came near, holding the hand of a young boy who approached me as I was touching small noses with red make-up. He clearly wanted his nose included, so I gave him a red nose. It reflected my red nose, and clown face that I had applied moments before, with help from the children as my mirror, pointing to spots on my face I had missed. I smiled at the woman whose face was hidden but for her eyes, and I saw her eyes smile at me. We connected. Ahhhh, she approved. What a relief! This third day of the mission was my first time trying out whiteface make-up with the Syrians. I wasn’t sure that it would go over, but I had to try. I hadn’t donned whiteface in 40 years, since my street mime travel adventure in Europe in 1974. Yet here i was in Jerash, Jordan, in a rainbow hat with silver bells, and a clown face and interactions I will never forget. Perhaps the children will remember too and smile again.
I returned to eye contact with the veiled woman. Her eyes continued to smile. Do I detect crow’s feet? Was she a grandmother, I wondered? She could have been my age, or older. Me in whiteface, her face covered in black. We were able to meet, eye to eye, and know that we were both smiling. It dawned on me that I had never made eye contact with a woman behind a veil before. And since then, I don’t hesitate to see the eyes behind a veil.
And so i continue to try to see out of the eyes of those injured and struggling in countless ways as victims of war, being forced to contend with the destruction of their homeland. Relatives of many of my fellow volunteers still live in Syria, and I grieve for my new friends consumed with worry for their loved ones.
Fortunately, I now know that I have the strength and means to continue in this work. I hope to meet up with my fellow volunteers, in November, on our next Medical Mission to Jordan.