We hear the stories on the news and we see the heartrending images of the Syrian refugee crisis escalating every day but we are still distanced from the real thing, from truly understanding and feeling the suffering that the refugees are enduring.
The United Nations Refugee Agency reported an influx into Syria’s neighboring countries of a total of 2,007,598 people who fled the violence in their country.
Humanitarian workers estimate that the number may actually be double because the U.N. Refugee Agency only accounts for the registered refugees. Women and children make up three quarters of the refugee population, arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Hearing about the refugee camps and seeing the misery through your TV or computer screen is very different from witnessing the situation firsthand. And that is exactly what Hani Ibrahim Khoja and his 13-year-old daughter, Tasneme did; they traveled to Jordan to visit the Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps.
Khoja has been involved in philanthropic work before both abroad and in his home town, Jeddah.
However, the idea of getting involved with the displaced Syrians was first sparked when a friend mentioned a donation campaign to supply food aid for those in the refugee camps in Jordan.
In a whirlwind of rushed decisions and events, Khoja collected sufficient donations from his social network and was on a plane to Amman.
“The repeated, daily images of human suffering that are broadcast on news channels actually numb our feelings. Living in a peaceful bubble, all this tragedy can sometimes seem surreal to us.
“It is easy to send money and not think of the heartache, but I wanted to help financially and go there to see it all with my own eyes and make an emotional connection with the people there,” Khoja told Saudi Gazette in an exclusive interview after his return.
Their first stop was Jerash, a refugee camp housing 45,000 Palestinian refugees who have been there for 15 years.
“The conditions there are deplorable; the typical living quarters are no more than small cement blocks; half of them without a roof.
“Three families share a single room, where up to 15 people sleep, change, cook, eat, and relax. The humanitarian aid we took to the camp was used to purchase food staples and wholesome meals for the families,” said Khoja.
“We went in Ramadan and we visited one of the families just before Maghreb prayer, only to find the women boiling a pot of water. Their iftar meal was stale bread softened in the hot water and seasoned with salt and pepper.
“None had visited them or brought them any aid in the last three months, and they felt forgotten by humanitarian relief workers and by the world,” recalled Khoja.
“Around the camp, there is an exposed sewage system, allowing rampant spread of diseases. Children there followed us, pulled at our belongings, and begged for money.
“Gazzan refugees inhabiting the camps are not permitted to work in Jordan. Children go to school only until 10th grade, after which they receive no further education, and they have no medical insurance.
“Mental illness is disturbingly common among the Palestinian refugees at Jerash camp. Much more is needed in improving living conditions, education, restoring living quarters, and establishing medical clinics,” said Khoja.
As for the Zaatari camp set up for the Syrian refugees in the North of Jordan, families live in flimsy tents, and the lucky ones have a slightly sturdier aluminum box.
Everything is lacking, every basic human necessity: clean water, food, medicine, clothing, books, and toys for the children.
The worst part is not the physical hardships they are facing but the psychological distress. They lost their homes, wealth, and loved ones and they have survived unspeakable trauma.
The majority of the Syrian refugees who crossed the border into Jordan were self-sufficient farmers; they were not destitute before.
However, their wealth was in their land, crops, tractors, and animals, which obviously they could not bring with them when they fled for their lives. Now, they have nothing.
“Zaatari is a seemingly endless stretch of tents in the middle of a desert. There are constant sandstorms with nothing to protect them from harsh weather; the flapping of the tents and the howling of the wind at night makes it difficult to sleep,” said Khoja.
He added: “Whoever is able to should go because each person has a gift and a passion through which he/she can help; whether it is in education, psychological therapy, counseling, medicine, nursing, or journalism.
Syrians at the camp closely follow the news and they incessantly worry about their relatives and friends who remain in their bleeding country.”
Nonetheless, the Syrians are very active and some still have enough spirit and energy in them to start small businesses, open shops, plant a plot of land, and teach their children.
Plans to return
Khoja plans to return to the camp and continue the charity work he started because he was pained by the look in the children’s eyes which revealed that they thought that once he left he would never come back.
“We want to fix roofs to protect the families from Jordan’s harsh winters. We want to paint their walls and clean the floors so it is healthier for them to live. We want them to live in acceptable conditions,” said Khoja.
The trip to the refugee camps changed Tasneme and taught her a lot. “I realized how fortunate and blessed we are. We should be more grateful for what we have. The children there have no stable home, no clean bathrooms, no air-conditioning, no new clothes, no entertainment, no school, and barely enough to keep their hunger quiet.
I felt helpless and I wanted to do something, more than just donate money,” said Tasneme.
Tasneme has been telling her friends and everyone she meets about the situation of the refugees.
She made a video about her trip and posted it on YouTube to show the world what it is like there, with hopes that more people will get involved in humanitarian relief work.
She learned to make a positive difference; the key is to be committed, consistent, and passionate.