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In January 2016, I witnessed the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation. The Syrian crisis.
I rang in the New Year by volunteering on a medical mission with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) in the refugee camps in Jordan. In the span of six days, we treated over 5,000 Syrian and Palestinian refugees between the camps and clinics.
As a student volunteer on this mission, I worked with doctors of different specialties as a translator for the non-Arabic speaking doctors or just as a general assistant for all.
This trip was an eye-opening experience for me. I saw firsthand what these people were going through.
According to the United Nations, there are approximately 6.5 million displaced Syrian refugees. Of those 6.5 million refugees, 80,000 are living in one of the locations I visited with SAMS, the Zataari refugee camp, which is now the fifth largest city in Jordan.
When you first come into the Zataari camp, you are greeted by the unpleasant stares of the security guards positioned in front of the gates. Once your vehicle has been cleared for entry, you continue down what once may have been a dirt road, but is now just pure mud. Around you are the thousands of caravans that the refugees call home. It’s important to note, however, that “caravans” is just a glamorized term for grey metal boxes lined up side-by-side that each has the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees logo on them.
On this trip, I realized that it is one thing to read a refugee’s story on Facebook or on a Humans of New York post, but it’s a completely different thing to have these refugees tell you their stories directly to you. When a refugee looks you in the eyes and says “I walked here for two days in the winter carrying my nine-month old baby”, or a kid says “I used to have two older siblings but they were killed in Syria,” how are you supposed to react? How are you supposed to process that?
We read these stories on Facebook, maybe wipe away a tear, and hit the “share” button. Then we go on with our lives.
But when you hear these peoples’ stories, when you see the conditions they’re living in, when you work with these children who are so young they don’t know a life other than living in a besieged city in Syria and now in a fenced camp, you can’t really go on with your normal life after that. It stays with you.
When I go to class, I’ll always remember the look on a refugee child’s face when she told me “I miss going to school.” When I complain about how tired I am are after work, I’ll think of the man in the camp who said “I wish I could work so that I could feed my children”. When I turn up the heat in my home to fight off the bitter winter cold, ingrained in my memory will be the refugee children who came to the doctor because they had second or third degree burns which they got by getting too close to the kerosene heaters in their caravans trying to take in what little warmth they could.
A trip like this changed me. It took an emotional toll on me. I am definitely not the same person I was before I went on this trip. I feel that I’ve come back a different person.
I learned so much on my trip to the refugee camps. I learned about compassion, about appreciating what God has given me, and about how big of an impact we can truly make on those in need. Whether it's just playing with the kids in the camps to help them forget about their pain or holding a patient's hand to calm them while the doctor examined them, I really do feel that I have made a difference. I feel that I touched the lives of those who I was fortunate enough to work with.
So now, when you hear someone talk about how “horrible” these refugees are and how “dangerous” they could be to our societies, think of who these people really are. Think about how the men and women who were once engineers in Syria, are now living in a refugee camp trying to get by day-by-day. Think about the children that would give anything to go to school and further their education. Think about those who are sick but can’t access the proper health care they deserve because they are locked in a camp.
I think that going on this trip has made me a stronger person. It has motivated me to want to do more. After seeing the impact that I was able to make on people – even as just a student, not as one of the doctors on the trip, who definitely did most of the lasting and impactful work – I realize how easy and important it is for me to dedicate my time to help the refugees.