BLOG CONTRIBUTOR: Yasmine Hamdi

Yasmine Hamdi is a 17 year old author, public speaker and advocate for human and animal rights. This August, she traveled to Jordan with her family to learn more about the refugee crisis and visit TSF projects on the ground. This is her experience: 

The Experience of a Lifetime: Giving Back and Helping Syrian Refugees in Northern Jordan 

Written by Yasmine Hamdi

 Yasmine with students at The Azraq School

Yasmine with students at The Azraq School

When we aren't the ones suffering, it's easy to turn our backs on others. But if we don't help each other, what will become of us? This is not about politics or beliefs- it's about being human.

I was supposed to go to California this summer.

In fact, I'd been looking forward to surfing some of the best beaches in the United States and hanging out with friends there for over a year. But in June, I watched The White Helmets, a documentary about the Syrian Civil War, and it changed everything. The film had opened my eyes to the refugee crisis and made me want to do something so badly. It was impossible now for me to just have fun all summer when there were so many things to be done to help others. I dove into researching every aspect of the war, watching countless videos and reading numerous articles. I discovered that over a million refugees had fled to the neighboring country of Jordan, most of them not even living in refugee camps but rather, in urban areas under varying conditions. I told my dad everything I'd learned and told him that we had to go to Jordan. He listened carefully and thought it was a good idea, but told me it had to be either Jordan or California, not both.

That was the easiest choice I'd ever had to make. 

I discovered The Syria Fund through Instagram and reached out to the cofounder, Lexi. She was incredibly nice and helpful from the start, and I'm lucky to know her. I met with her in NYC in late June, and was so inspired by her. Lexi had lived in Damascus before the war and started this non-profit organization in hopes of helping the Syrian people who had made her feel so at home years ago. The Syria Fund constantly supplies refugee families who need financial help with food and other critically-needed supplies. They also started two schools in Jordan that allows Syrian kids to continue their educations and can keep learning without letting a war put their futures on hold. Lexi made it possible for me to visit one of the schools, and we worked out all the details together. Check them out here !

In mid-July, I finally embarked on this life-changing trip to Jordan, accompanied my dad, sister and grandma. From the moment I stepped foot there, I felt at home. It's safe to say that it is the one country that completely stole my heart. For the first few days, I was a tourist visiting Petra, the Dead Sea and Jerash, but the day of the school visit quickly arrived. My family and I were in Amman on that day, and we drove over early to pick up Owais, one of the school's teachers, at his house. We all chatted and got to know each other before hitting the road for Azraq. Owais was so kind and acted as our tour guide for the day. He's a music teacher, and is very good at what he does. We gradually left the bustle of the capital for gaping fields of dried grass. The number of cars on the highway slowly began to drop, as Azraq is a pretty isolated city in Northern Jordan. We passed a military base and several Syrian border signs on our way, signifying how close we were to the war-torn country. 

We also passed Azraq Refugee Camp- the second-largest refugee camp in Jordan and home to over 30,000 refugees. I had chills down my spine as I saw the thousands of makeshift homes and white UNICEF tents. It's one thing to see refugee camps on TV and to be so far away and sheltered that you don't give it another thought, but being right in front of them was a whole other story.

I was witnessing a place of broken families and lost dreams.

 Azraq Refugee Camp

Azraq Refugee Camp

 Syrian border: 53 km/ about 30 miles away

Syrian border: 53 km/ about 30 miles away

Not long after passing the camp, we pulled up at the school. It was such a cute little place, with about 5 different caravans that made up different classrooms. Inspirational phrases and pictures were painted on the caravans, and each one was meant for a different grade. There was a little playground and a mini library as well.

From the moment we arrived, I had kids running up to me and hugging and kissing my cheeks. They were so excited to see us! Owais started off by giving the kids a brief introduction to who I was, and told them how I wanted to write my second book on the Syrian civil war. I then got to spend around 20 minutes in each caravan and meeting all the kids. I gave them gifts I'd brought them; candy and colored pens, and we drew, laughed and talked together. The kids didn't speak English but I speak Arabic. Although we don't speak the same dialect, I know some Syrian words and phrases and we were able to communicate pretty well. 

 Cutest School Ever

Cutest School Ever

 Reem and her new book!

Reem and her new book!

One of the first girls I met was Reem, an 11 year old girl who holds so much curiosity and intelligence in such a tiny body. She showed me around and drew a picture of her school for me. I was so impressed by her passion for learning, kind heart and ability to speak English. I gave her one of the signed copies of my book, Spirit of the Wind, that I had with me. I told her that she could practice reading English this way. She was so happy and cradled that book to her chest for the rest of the day. Reem inspired me, and she was everything I wanted in a main character: sweet, brave and determined. I knew the main character for my book would be based somewhat around her.

 Group pic with my new friends! I love these kids so much.

Group pic with my new friends! I love these kids so much.

I went around the classroom, meeting the other students and drawing pictures with them. Most of the kids were from Homs, Syria and had crossed the Jordanian border when it was still possible. The border was closed now. I asked them how their lives were before the war, and they told me it was great, or perfect. They spoke of Syria nostalgically, with a wiseness beyond their years. They all told me they wanted to go back when the war was over. I smiled, because I knew that when they did, they'd be the ones to rebuild Syria. I asked them if they preferred Syria or Jordan, and most of them said "both!" One girl told me she considered Jordan her second country. My dad and I then spoke with the older kids, learning more about their lives before the war and listening to their stories.

 Ibtisam and me

Ibtisam and me

Refugees aren't scary. They are kids that have temporarily lost their homes to war. And they are the most incredible kids I've ever met. Sweet, smart and funny, yet they all encompass these old souls because of the things they've seen and experienced. 

Meet Ibtisam: a mature and playful 12 year old. She was always joking with us and her friends, yet told me with all seriousness that she wanted to be a doctor when she got older to help people. 

I told her that I wanted to do that as well. Who knew, maybe someday we would both work together with an organization like Doctors Without Borders and help those stuck in a humanitarian crises like this one.

 Such an awesome kid! That smile though.

Such an awesome kid! That smile though.

This is a 13 year old boy who has been through more than any person, let alone child should go through. And he's always smiling, and so optimistic despite the awful things he's lived through. He told us how his family had been living in Syria with no real intentions of leaving, until an airstrike killed his two brothers. His family decided to leave and they spent three days traveling by bus before they finally reached Jordan.

The family spent a few days at Zaatari refugee camp, the biggest refugee camp in the country, and eventually found their way to the town of Azraq, where they now reside and their son goes to school, thanks to the work of The Syria Fund. 

I also met a 14 year old girl who was very shy, but incredibly sweet. She opened up to us and explained how her uncle was killed in Syria and she witnessed an airstrike happen right in front of her. Since then, she's suffered psychological trauma and gets scared whenever she hears an airplane (this happens a lot since planes from the nearby military base fly over the school all the time). She began crying while she spoke to us, and my heart broke for her. I look forward to the day when she will finally be able to sleep without her dreams being plagued by nightmares.

 Delivering food boxes, house by house!

Delivering food boxes, house by house!

I met more kids and heard more stories, but those are better left for another post. Too soon, it was time to leave. Owais took us to visit some refugee families who were living in difficult situations. Some of them were handicapped, most were very poor, all were victims of a terrible war. I spent the afternoon delivering food boxes to them. Before I'd left for Jordan, I had raised money with a Crowdrise fundraiser and linked it to The Syria Fund so they got all the money. Thanks to so many generous donors, I was able to raise over $800. With that money, we were able to buy food boxes to feed these families. They thanked me, hugged me and invited us in for tea. They didn't have much, but they wanted to give us the little they did have. 

I was so moved by their kindness, and above all, their resilience.  

 I'm so humbled to have been able to make so many people happy. Here are the recipients of a food box

I'm so humbled to have been able to make so many people happy. Here are the recipients of a food box

Money is always needed, so if you want to help, here is the link to my fundraiser: Help me Improve the Lives of Syrian Refugees . Any amount helps, and as you can see, 100% of the money goes directly to refugee aid.

The following day, back in Amman, we worked with a Syria Fund volunteer named Maher. With about 7 others, we stuffed about 100 backpacks with school supplies. The rest of the money that I raised was used to purchase all these supplies! Now, the kids would have material to learn with. I met some incredible volunteers while I was there, including Julie, Maher's wife. She was French but lived in Jordan. She had us over for tea and explained to us that she worked for the Middle East Children's Institute and would love to have me help her next time I was in Jordan. For sure, we will make that happen! We spoke about the refugee crisis, our visit to the Azraq school, future projects, and more! 

 Stuffing backpacks with pens, notebooks, erasers, rulers, and more

Stuffing backpacks with pens, notebooks, erasers, rulers, and more

 The finished product. Stuffed and ready for eager students!

The finished product. Stuffed and ready for eager students!

This has undoubtedly been the most incredible experience of my life where I discovered my passion for humanitarian work. I'm grateful to The Syria Fund for giving me this opportunity. I'm grateful to the volunteers who work hard daily to better humanity; I strive to be like you. I'm grateful to the beautiful Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for taking in so many refugees and providing them with a place they can call their second home.  Most of all, I'm grateful to those that opened their hearts to me and trust me with their stories. I promise to do my very best to bring them to life and make your voices heard. This has only made me want to work harder to provide for refugees, and I can't wait to do more for them in Jordan very soon. I aspire to help The Syria Fund in even bigger ways next time.

This is just the beginning... 

Original blog post: http://yasminehamdi.com/blog/the-experience-of-a-lifetime-giving-back-and-helping-syrian-refugees-in-northern-jordan