By Kelli Clark, the team co-leader for the first serving trip to Jordan from Willow Creek.
It is the end of March, and we are five days into a nine-day serving trip in Jordan, learning from people who are living as refugees and from people who are serving them.
We ride in cars through the sleepy Jordanian desert. Even though we have been there nearly a week, we still point out every sheepherder we pass along the way, commenting on their ability to guide their flocks.
The drive from Amman, the capital of Jordan, is just over an hour when our 11-person team approaches the guard post at Zaatari camp, a refugee settlement near the Syrian border in northern Jordan.
Our driver exchanges a few words and documentation with the United Nations officer at the gate. We then proceed off the paved road and onto a dusty trail.
There are at least 79,000 people living at Zaatari. “Home” now for them is some form of temporary housing while they wait for the war to end in Syria or for resettlement and placement through the UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency.
There were no other cars on the road. The only cars allowed in the camp are those that belong to NGOs, or non-governmental organizations. Men can ride bicycles if they have them, and women walk.
The homes, the walls, the buildings, the water tanks, and the roads are all varying shades of beige. All of the buildings are an arm’s distance from each other and covered in a thin layer of desert sand dust. We drive down a dusty road next to the concrete wall, which serves as a perimeter fence, secured with spiraled barbed wire at the top. We then make right down another dusty road taking us into the center of camp.
Minutes later, we drive into a courtyard surrounded with brightly painted caravans stamped with lime green Qs. We have arrived at Questscope, an NGO with an upside-down model that is changing lives in Zaatari and around the world.
Instead of approaching refugees as problems to solve, Questscope approaches them as the resources, providing the infrastructure and all the materials they need, empowering people who are living at the camp and volunteering at Questscope to do the actual work of helping each other.
The staff and volunteers at Questscope will tell you they are in the change-making business: When your whole life has been interrupted and turned on its head because of circumstances outside of your control, you can either choose to let everything be put on hold, or you can choose to be a change-maker and create the change you want to see in your world.
Our team of 11 Americans is made up of mainly women, united in our interest in learning what life is like as a refugee. Together, we spend one day learning from Questscope’s volunteer staff about how they are creating the world of their dreams through mentoring and a wide variety of training and learning programs that take place at their site in Zaatari.
Because of Questscope’s model of empowering people, I see how men and women who are living as refugees are also living as real-life heroes. I walk with some of the bravest, most beautiful women I've ever met, whose faces and stories will be forever etched in my mind.
I meet my dear friend, Nadin, that day. She has been living in Zaatari for more than four years with her husband and his family. She has been married for six years and was a student at Damascus University in Syria before the civil war there forced her to leave. She found Questscope on her third day at Zaatari and has been volunteering every week ever since. She serves as a receptionist and helps with training programs for women.
I meet Sahim, a beautiful woman who prefers to be at the back of the crowd. She’s a talented artist and jewelry-maker. When we arrive at the art caravan, she quietly opens up a box of beads and invites us over. Through broken English (because we can’t speak Arabic), she teaches us how to make intricate beaded key chains and insists we take them home with us. “You’re an artist, I can tell,” she says to Carly, one of the women on our team, who picks up the pattern way ahead of the rest of us. Sometimes, it doesn’t require having much in common on the outside to recognize a kindred spirit on the inside.
In the “gym,” Rowyada and Sherain, also from Syria and passionate about health and exercise, turns up the music, and 20 of us do Zumba like we’ve never Zumba’d before. I mainly keep tripping over my own feet, laughing as I move around the room. Coordination and super-sleek dance moves have never been my strong suit. But for those 30 minutes, I forget we’re inside of a confined camp. I forget we have a language barrier. I forget we come from different cultures and backgrounds and faiths. We’re just 30 women bustin’ a move and becoming friends.
Mirvat is the chef, in charge of preparing lunch that day. Her assistants – our group – are a handful of American taboulah-making rookies. What we lack in skill, though, we make up for in enthusiasm. There are no cookbooks or measuring cups. No fancy slicers or dicers. Through lots of do-what-I-do demonstration, with a handful of dull knives, around a little folding table, we chop and dice and mix and stir. I learn how to make the best taboulah I've ever tasted.
We talk about what life has been like for them for the past five years since they fled their homes. We talk about what life was like before Zaatari. We talk about what they were studying, how they were nearly finished with college degrees from Damascus University, where they worked, when they got married.
I learn from these women about the way they are bringing life and hope and love to this season of their lives and to their corner of the world. They are reaching out to each other; they are using their skills to benefit others. Through Zumba classes, language classes, computer classes, training on gender-based violence, leadership and art, they are improving each other’s lives by guiding each other in the areas in which they’re passionate. Today, they are dreaming of expanding Questscope’s footprint in the camp. They want to add on a multi-room language center. They want to build another library. They want to add a second location so it’s easier for those on the other side of camp to participate in their programs.
At the end of our day, we ask about what they’re hopeful for in the future. Their response? “We don’t think about the future so much anymore. We’re so busy dreaming about what we want to build today.”
Perhaps I had to see despair through a new lens. Perhaps I had to see and smell and taste and touch life as a refugee in Jordan to begin to understand. And perhaps when we seek to learn about issues by listening to one person’s story, we are never the same.