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Uploaded:2016-06-07
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In which John visits the Za'atari refugee camp in northern Jordan and talks with refugees there about their hopes, ambitions, fears, and complex lives.
Thanks to everyone at UNHCR, the UN's Refugee Agency, for allowing me to visit Zaatari and for all the work they do. To learn more, visit http://withrefugees.org.


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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. So when I was in Jordan, we drove out from Amman one day to visit the Zaatari Refugee Camp just south of the Syrian border. Zaatari is currently home to about 80,000 refugees, most of whom are children. First, I met these three teenage boys, who were taking a photography class taught by refugee volunteers. The youngest of them, 15 year old Ubay, told me he had dropped out of school to work, but was now taking the photography class because he missed learning. When I asked him about his biggest fear, he said "What worries me most is child labor. This generation will not be able to help Syria afterwards; we will become, year by year, more illiterate."

I heard this again and again from parents and kids alike. The economic pressures on refugees are so immense that it's extremely difficult to keep kids in school, a problem made worse by the schools being woefully underfunded and overcrowded. Like, kids have to attend class in two shifts, so they only get a few hours of instruction per day, and each classroom often has over 100 kids in it. 

I then met Aida's family. She lives with 5 of her kids in the camp, including twin 5 year olds who found Snapchat filters absolutely hilarious. When I asked Aida why she came to Jordan, she said, very matter-of-factly, "I want you to picture yourself sitting in your home, and an explosive barrel falls on top of your roof, and after the fog is gone, you check your kids to see if they are alive. And you find pieces of flesh lying in your house and you have to check to see if they are from your family."

Of course, I can't picture that, not really. I mean, I can try to imagine the horrors of war or the trauma of dislocation, but I don't really know what it's like to be a 13 year old whose house gets bombed. I don't know what it's like to end up living in a single room with my mother and 4 of my siblings, attending overcrowded schools with a totally unfamiliar curriculum until dropping out to earn $3 a day. You can't imagine those things, but still I think we need to know that they are real, and that this is happening. But it's not all that's happening, because Zaatari is also teeming with vibrance and life. In the main marketplace you can buy TVs and solar phone chargers. You can rent a wedding dress and get your bicycles and shoes fixed. There's a pizza restaurant that delivers, and the pizza is phenomenally good. Like, better than any delivered pizza in Indianapolis.

People are complex and their lives are complex, and again and again, I heard from refugees that among their biggest challenges is feeling dehumanized, feeling destructed and disbelieved, and like, much of the world sees them simply as objects to be pitied or feared.

Later that day I visited with a family whose 18 year old daughter was about to begin university. Her father, Musamohammed was immensely proud of his daughter's achievements. He told me that in Syria they'd lived in a two-story house, they'd had a car; now they had only the hope of their childrens' education. And when I asked him what he would say to people in the U.S. and Europe, he answered, "Only that refugees are people, and that being a refugee does not distinguish me from any other human being."

After saying goodbye to Musamohammed and his family, we went outside and I saw a flock of pigeons flying above me, and I thought "What an improbable moment of natural beauty." But then someone explained to me that kids train groups of pigeons like this one to fly in elaborate patterns. This beauty wasn't some accident of nature, it was a kid's expression of joy.

We think "This horror is unfortunate, but we can't fix it, it's human nature." We think "We need to protect ourselves, however we define 'ourselves,' even if it means treating them, however we define 'them,' as less than fully human." We think "Well that's just the nature of things". But being in Zaatari reminded me that human nature is not just some force acting upon me. Human nature is also something we are creating together, as we decide how to treat each other and the world we share. Hank, I'll see you on Friday.