By Rasha Abousalem
There comes a time in your life when you just know that things will change. That time for me was back in February 2014 when I decided to go on a 3 week long humanitarian trip to assist and interview Syrian refugees throughout Jordan. During the early stages of organizing my trip, I had read about Salaam Cultural Museum online and decided to contact them to get some more information about their work in Jordan. Unfortunately at that time, I was unable to join SCM on their May trip, as I had plans to be at another location in Jordan. By almost the second week of June I received an email from SCM inquiring if I would still be in Jordan during the June trip and if I would be interested in providing translation services for the medical group they were working with, Global First Responder. It seemed like a random chance they had emailed me, as I was set to leave Jordan for several days at that time, but this time I rescheduled my leave and jumped at the chance to take part in SCM’s mission.
Unlike the majority of SCM and GFR members, whom were staying at a hotel in Amman, I was staying with my only relative in the country and on the first day had to meet them by taking a taxi to an unofficial refugee camp in Sahaab. It felt quite awkward to show up to sandy lot sprawled out with tents, as children, some barefoot and covered with dirt, looked at me from the distance, wondering who I was. I was caught off guard, not only by the realization that these people standing before me had witnessed horrors that nightmares are made of, but that I, a person with a degree in human rights and refugees and who had studied case after case of wars and genocides, felt my stomach drop. As soon as I walked out of that taxi and saw the emptiness in those children’s eyes, my chest tightened and my heart sank to a low I’ve never felt before.
I felt disappointed in myself. I thought I was mentally and emotionally ready to deal with what I was about to see, and for a moment I stood there trying to figure out what it was that was bothering me so much. Maybe it was because they were just children, and they were supposed to be laughing and running, not from bombs or bullets, but from friends chasing them. Maybe it was because I knew that I had a shower and warm bed to go back to, or that eventually I’ll make my way back home to the US, where my biggest fear is getting a speeding ticket and not being shot by a sniper. Maybe it was because I felt a closeness that most of the volunteers couldn’t understand, in that I too was Arab, and like these refugees my family too suffered from wars and are refugees as well. Somehow this entire moment lasted only about 30 seconds before I snapped myself out of it and continued towards the tent to finally meet Rita face-to-face for the first time.
I was happy to finally meet someone, as I did not know anyone there- not from SCM or GFR. The first thing I noticed about Rita was what a hard worker she was. It was so important for her to make sure that everything was running smoothly, or as smoothly as possible considering our location. She pointed me over to the tent where I would be spending the majority of my day. As I made my way over I could hear some of the refugees wondering if I was a reporter, due to my camera hanging around my neck. Some were concerned about the pictures I might take, while the children were excited at the prospect of having their picture taken. I couldn’t help but chuckle on the inside, as none of the refugees knew I was of Arab descent and were unaware that I could understand what they were saying. My guilty pleasure was the surprise, sometimes shock in their eyes when I would greet them with “Salaamu Alaikum” or “Marhaba” and start speaking to them fluently in Arabic. Asides from that being a good ice breaker, it was my biggest tool in creating a necessary connection with these people and building trust, even if it were the amount of a grain of salt.
I was pointed to the direction of a tent towards my left, and as I am walking to it I come across a woman watering some plants in a little garden. I walk up to her and offered my greetings, and asked her if she had planted those herself, to which she replied, “Yes, but some people thinks it’s a waste of time and that I’m silly for planting them because they probably won’t last.” I asked her what her opinion was about it being considered silly by others. She then said something that I will never forget- “I do it anyways because it brings a smile to my face. We all need to smile.”
As I turned around and continued making my way to the tent I was designated to, I came across three young girls between the ages of 9-11 yrs old. They were curious about me and where I was coming from and of course my camera. Young girls that had seen enough in the last year than most of us will ever see in our entire lifetime. One of my favorite pictures from this trip was the one I took of them before I ended our conversation.
I finally make my way into the tent where I immediately take my place next to GFR members Dr. Adam Beckett (founder) and Rick Baker. I hadn’t even been sitting for one minute when a young girl, around the age of six, enthusiastically climbed into my lap. I loved it, but at the same time it showed how much these kids were seeking attention and affection, especially the younger ones, whereas the older children, although still curious, were more cautious and independent. Her smile lighted up the dim tent. She was lightly covered in dirt and desperately needed a bath, and I wondered how long it’s been since her last shower. Yet she smiled as if nothing in the world mattered but that moment.
As the hours went by, I translated for Rick, hoping that I was doing my job right. I do not have any official medical training and was concerned that I might not translate correctly, but those fears quickly subsided with each passing patient. We encountered many with skin and/or gastrointestinal issues, which are extremely contagious in settings such as refugee camps where hygiene struggles to be a top priority. In Syria, prior to the war, medical services had come at no cost to the people. There were many practicing doctors and medical facilities that catered to various medical issues. Since the onset of the war, many of the refugees we encountered had not seen a doctor or received any type of medical attention for years. It was vital that SCM and GFR provide such services to those refugees.
After hours of sitting on the floor, we decided to take a short break, which served as a great opportunity for me to do some photography and speak to some of the refugees. As I went out into the sunlight and the heat of a summer day in Jordan, I saw a man pull up in an old pickup. Out came an older gentleman with a bag in his hand. A crowd of children and women began to form around him, as their voices grew louder and impatience seemed to spread. The best shots I can get would be on the back of the pickup, so I climbed up the old tire and took a stand on the edge. The old man opened up the bag and exposed a box of lollipops- colorful, basic lollipops. Something we take for granted everyday for sure, but to these refugees, especially the children, this was beyond a treat, but rather a feast that will probably not repeat itself for many months later. As soon as he opened the box, it was as if a bell in a race rang and all the children went crazy for that candy. Arms raised high as if begging, even just for the chance to touch the sugary goodness. The poor man was almost trampled on, but that wasn’t what really caught my attention. It was the desperation in these children’s eyes, all for colored sugar. They had to have it.
As soon as the little riot died down, the man went into his truck and retrieved a book and bags of freshly baked pita bread. He informed me that he keeps tabs on which refugee family gets what, and that every single refugee receives bread at one point or another. Watching these men, women, and children walk away with an armful of bread offered a relief, even if just for a moment, knowing that tonight and tomorrow night they will have something to eat.
I jumped down from the truck and made my way around the camp, making sure to give my greetings to those around, hoping that it will relieve their curiosity about me and make me more approachable. Surely enough, it did. A woman was inside a tent, surrounded by crates of semi-rotten tomatoes, potatoes, and other vegetables and one single gas canister with a cooktop. I asked her if this is where families came to cook their food, to which she replied yes. I also discovered each family cooks for themselves. I asked her what was the last thing her family had to eat, and in a saddened voice veiled by calm tone, she replied, “Potatoes.” I knew she was lucky compared to those who had gone days without eating. And as I backed out of the tent and gave my salutation, she asked me if I would join her family for dinner. Me, add another mouth to feed to their family, thus causing the others to eat less so that I can be provided with their food? Although I was not surprised at her offer and manners, I was taken back that even in such a state she was still thinking about others. I thanked her repeatedly for the offer but informed her that I must be on my way.
I continued my way around the camp, greeting one family after another and declining one lunch invitation after another. I returned to the camp and continued translating for Rick and whoever else needed my services. As the day dragged on, some of the elders would come and offer us tea with mint, a traditional way of Arabs to serve their teas. Naturally, I loved it and I was pleasantly surprised to see the non-Arabs of the group love it as well. The day began to wind down and we started clearing out the tents of our supplies.
As I made my way back into Amman, I closed my eyes in an attempt to clear out my head. I hadn’t seen anything graphic, such as bodies wrecked by shrapnel or arms blown off by barrel bombs, but rather I desperation and fear in their eyes. I heard hope, yet sorrow in their voices. I felt love in the embrace of a barefoot child covered in dirt. I wanted to do so much more than just translate. I wanted to reassure them that people cared, and that everything will be alright. But would it? How can I convince them of that after everything they have seen? These people have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their loved ones. Their families have been torn apart not by bombs, but by the pride and greed of men. How can they trust us now?
That trust was there, as I later discovered in my next several days working with Salaam Cultural Museum. They have built trust with the refugees at the sites and centers they visit. It takes not just dedication, but love to drive hours throughout Jordan helping those refugees in need. SCM gave me and GFR the amazing opportunity to not only interact, but to connect with these refugees, whether it be at a camp in the middle of a sandy lot or a center built to provide therapy for children suffering from PTSD. And if that wasn’t enough, through SCM I also formed life-long friendships with the other volunteers, and in one particular situation, something even more special: