We Found Love in a Hope-Filled (Za’atari Refugee Camp)

This post is long overdue for many reasons. I have been in Jordan for three weeks now and have not had the urge to write down my experiences and share them. Well, that’s not true. I’ve had so many moments and times and inspirations to put my experiences into words, but I’ve been scared. I’ve been scared because I want to do these experiences justice. I don’t want to let people down. Then I had a dear friend remind me that this space and this blog isn’t a place where judgement is welcome. It’s my space to invite you in to take a peek at the wonderful moments that are perfectly imperfect. That’s all. And there is one moment, one day in particular that is imperative to share and frankly, I have a responsibility to do so because of the life-changing, eye-opening capacity this day embodied. So – here it goes.

On September 19th, my study abroad group had the incredible opportunity to visit the Za’atari refugee camp, a refugee camp that currently is called home by about 80,000 Syrian refugees. I won’t spend this time delving into the facts about Za’atari, but take a moment to educate yourself about this particular camp because it’s commonly called a “model” refugee camp (if there really is such a thing). If included in Jordan’s population count, it is the fourth-largest “city”. In my opinion, Za’atari looks and functions as it’s own city.

Mideast Jordan US Kerry

We started our morning with meeting with a member of the Jordanian police and a women from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who gave us a quick overview of how the camp runs and answered our eager questions. We were scheduled to then visit an NGO called Questscope.

Questscope is an NGO that is run by Syrians for Syrians within the camp. It is a safe-space where youth can come to seek mentors, knowledge, art, and everything in between. Syrian adults have the chance to be mentors and teachers of their craft to the Syrian youth who are seeking a haven to be themselves and regain some sense of normalcy.  Questscope offers alternative education for the youth who have lost years of education when “formal” schooling is sometimes not an option. We started by getting an overview and history of Questscope and what they are advocating. They are advocates of dreams. The selfless people who work/volunteer for Questscope strive to unlock the abundant potential that these Syrian youth have bursting from their souls.

questscope-1

Some of the workers from Questscope we had the privilege of meeting. (Photo courtesy of Questscope blog)

After a quick tour of Questscope’s facility (which is comprised of caravans),  I was in awe. Syrian youth have access to a library, computers, art supplies, sports facilities and trainings, and most importantly, support. One of the most prominent images that stuck with me after this tour was the art space. The art work these people created wasn’t bleak or sad – it was joyous and unique. I didn’t see art that could have easily depicted the tragedy every single Syrian had been though. I saw dancers, mermaids, pride for Syria, and creations that proved hope was abundant in the camp. It was a moment that took my breath away.

questscope-2

A sports field that provides a refreshing patch of green where kids can be kids. (Photo courtesy of the Questscope blog)

After lunch, we were invited to interact with the youth during some of their activities. If you know anything about me, I immediately rushed to the room where music was blasting and dancing was infectious. It was a women-only zone where the women, both mentors and mentees alike, could shed their inhibitions and own their bodies. They immediately turned on the TV and cranked the volume so all the women could participate in Zumba. Side-by-side, we danced, we sweat (a lot), we looked like fools, we laughed and smiled.  Zumba organically morphed into free-dancing where the women could openly express whatever their bodies wanted. We were taught dance steps from dances that you could tell were an important part of their identity. Every time I looked into the eyes of these women, pure joy was spread across their faces and their smiles never once left faded. I lost track of time because I was overflowing with joy.

Let me take a moment to be selfish. Dancing with these women meant more to me than I can put into words. Dance was re-introduced in my life when I was at a low point and it renewed my spirit and made me whole again. Being able to share such an intimate and personal moment with these women, expressing ourselves though dance, still brings tears to my eyes like it did that day. It was a truly magical, euphoric moment that I will never, EVER forget.

These women and these people could have given up. They could have said life treated them unfairly and stopped living it. But they didn’t. They continue to dance and they continue to smile and they continue to move forward because of their incredible courage and unwavering pride. I held their hands and I felt their strength. I shared moments with them that are forever etched on my heart. These people have not and will never give up. They want to return to Syria and resume the lives that were taken from them. They want to be doctors, lawyers, activists, and artists. They want the world to know that they’re simply mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and at the end of the day, people just like you and me. They watch the same sun set and dream of a better and brighter future because no one can take their dreams away from them. They are my heroes.

20160919_183327.jpg

Watching the sun set after a day at Za’atari.

Please, share this story. Not for me, but for the 80,000 Syrian people who have had their lives changed forever. They are not Skittles, they are not peanuts, they are not your next news story, they are not the enemy. They are HUMAN BEINGS with families, passions, hopes, goals, pride, dreams, and ambition I wish I had. They are true inspirations. Give them the autonomy and respect they so rightly deserve and share their stories. It is a small move that can have lasting impact. Hope is abundant at Za’atari and it’s time the world knew.

*None of the pictures within the camp our original or my own (only the sunset at the end of my day in Ajloun). I wasn’t going to Za’atari to take pictures and diminish these people to a social media post because they are SO MUCH MORE than that. I went to learn, listen, and observe. And to have my life changed forever. 

Appreciating Abroad

The moment when I realized that I was coming home from studying abroad, I had mixed feelings. I was thrilled to return to my hometown, however I had adjusted to living in Alexandria, Egypt. There was a significant change in my perspective about my host city from when I first arrived to when I left Alexandria.

When I arrived in my host city after a long 24 hour flight, I was super jetlagged and could barely function. The time was 1 AM and I had a four hour drive ahead of me from Cairo to the northern coast. On the way to the university residence halls, I couldn’t wait to get settled in a room and rest. Driving to my housing I was a bit surprised about my new surroundings. Looking back at that time I remember imagining the city to look a bit different.

I had pictured Alexandria to look like something from a travel brochure, a city mixed with the old and new that had endless beaches right next to the university campus. Driving through the city to the residence halls, I had encountered something very different. I do not know if my thoughts were due to the physical and mental state, but the city was very run down, garbage lined the streets, and the air carried a stench that I had never experienced before. When I arrive at my residence hall I was disappointed. The building looked dilapidated and could collapse at any minute. I remember asking the driver in Arabic, “Is this it? Are you sure?” and he replied, “Yes this is the correct address.” In addition, the housing for men was far from campus and the public beaches were not exactly the best places to go swimming.

1

The first couple weeks were quite the challenge. It was not easy adjusting to a new way of living. The calendar was different where classes were Sunday through Thursday. The food options were great, however this gave you constant diarrhea and you were always on the lookout for a nearby bathroom just in case. The other American students in the Critical Language Scholars (CLS) program were rude and unfriendly to the students in my program. Also, the humidity was unbearable and I felt like a walking puddle in a polo. I felt very unsettled and was I was missing everything back home.

After getting settled and starting classes, I began to adjust and got used to living in Alexandria. I created some fantastic friendships with my fellow program classmates and had some amazing adventures with them exploring the city and country. The teachers in my college were supportive in our academics and were always excited to show us the fascinating and bizarre pockets of Alexandria. Developing a daily routine was critical to feeling comfortable. I quickly grew to love the city and the country and it began to feel more like a second home.

When my program was approaching the end, I could not believe how quickly time had passed. Thinking about coming home gave me feelings of joy. I was excited to see my family, my boyfriend, and all my friends. My senior year in college was about to start and I couldn’t wait to get started. However thinking about leaving Alexandria left me a bit sad because I saw the city in a new light. The ambiance of the buildings, people, and lifestyle were different then when I first arrived. Somehow I felt that I may be leaving something special behind.

2

How Study Abroad Prepared Me for My Next Adventure

For the record, I don’t quite know what my next adventure will be yet, nor will I pretend to have everything under control when it comes. Study abroad definitely beat that tendency out of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s bring it back a bit.

For many people, including myself, I got to truly travel independently for the first time when I studied abroad. I’d visited out-of-state friends in college, gone on road trips with others, but there’s always an added dimension when “international” gets thrown into the mix. There are more logistics, more languages, and more complications if something goes wrong. Through a few moments of brilliance and many more epic missteps, I learned quite a bit about living and traveling abroad. So, here’s a quick list of tangible ways study abroad prepared me for my next aforementioned adventure:

  1. I navigate a mean airport/bus terminal/metro station

I have spent a lot of time traveling, not in the sense that I have spent a lot of time abroad, which I thankfully have, but more that I’ve been exposed to some hellish layovers and travel days. Coming home from study abroad, I worked my way through four airports over two days of travel. It’s exhausting, and you shortly find that duty free looks the same just about everywhere, but I’ve found that I can navigate my way through almost any transportation hub, at this point. If I can’t, however, here’s a great segue into point 2…

547521_10151673153595028_562258848_n - Copy
I got so good at Ryan Air

 

  1. There’s nothing that you can’t express, unless you’re too embarrassed to mime it

I first experienced complete and utter language confusion when I studied abroad. I was on a bus from Zadar to Split, Croatia, when an elderly, balding man with a significant amount of missing teeth looked right at me and said a sequence of words that my brain was unable to register. Not a word. Not a phrase. Nothing.

So I sat there, I smiled, I nodded, I placed my hands in my lap, and then stupidly stared ahead, blankly, at the colorful, speckled fabric on the back of the headrest in front of me. I’d never felt more useless in my life.

Slowly, though, I learned to appreciate the art of miming and apologetic shrugging. While I never condone complete ignorance, when your faculties fail you, a grateful, wordless plea and the choo-choo noise will point you in the right direction to most train stations. Thankfully, standardized bathroom signs have saved me from ever miming number 1 or number 2.

1382017_10151727340700028_400539066_n - Copy
Thankfully, no miming require in Barcelona
  1. Proactively Google Map

Most smartphones have some sort of map feature, which come in handy quite often. What most people don’t realize is that when you use them, your route is saved in the phone until it either dies or you select another. So, when you’re heading out and don’t have Wi-Fi, map out the route to your destination while you still have Wi-Fi. It will help you get to where you need to go and will give you your starting location as a point of reference for when you need to go back. Please, however, take it with a grain of salt and make sure you’re going to the right place before you leave the warm, safe embrace of free internet.

1237747_10202066647293615_914596083_n - Copy
Also know how to read a real, paper map
  1. Don’t lose your cool

There are some situations where Murphy’s Law always holds true, and one of them is definitely international travel. Somehow, something you’re expecting underwhelms. Now, this can occur in varying degrees along the lines of “Damn, I forgot to pack a lunch, guess I’ll have to settle for a sandwich at the airport!” or “I’m stranded in Marrakech, Morocco without a passport because it just got stolen.” Both occurred to while I was studying abroad, ironically on the same trip.

The key to surviving these situations is to either not lose your cool or have someone there with you who won’t lose their cool. My good friend Ian was with me in Morocco and was instrumental in helping me stay sane as I
became increasingly hangry searching downtown Marrakech for the right documents I would bring to the U.S. consulate. I, on the other hand, was unflappable in finding a wayward friend one of my first nights in Salamanca when her phone was dead. Flexibility, I’ve learned, is key to weathering both the little and large snafus that will happen along the way.

10462506_10152668614870028_1581083004523674250_n
I want to go to there

 

 

Now, as I plan ahead to an epic Patagonian backpacking trip, tramping across New Zealand’s rugged, Middle-Earthen terrain, or exploring the Colombian beaches, I know I have some excellent skills in my toolbox. Undoubtedly, something will go wrong, but, *knock on wood*, it won’t be that serious and I’ll know how to deal with it, or at least fake it until I make it.

-Max Spiro, Graduate Study Abroad Assistant

How I Chose My Study Abroad Program

Go abroad for a summer to learn a language? Or stay home and learn a language in a classroom? The answer here is pretty simple. I chose to leave the U.S., study a language, and use my Arabic language skills in everyday life and gain the experience of a lifetime.

I studied abroad at the University of Alexandria, Egypt in 2010 and chose this program because my major was in Middle East Studies – Arabic. This program was a language intensive and fulfilled my entire third year Arabic language coursework in 2 months. I was both nervous and excited to go to Egypt and take courses in the University of Alexandria. This experience was one that I will always treasure since I met some amazing people, saw some amazing places, and observed simmering political turmoil.

To be honest, when I decided to join this program and go to Egypt, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had a vision of what the experience could have been like, but having already studied the Middle East, I already new that the picture I had was not going to be accurate. When I arrived, it was nothing like I had expected. However, it became overtime everything I needed and helped me truly understand Middle East culture.

During this program I had the opportunity to live in the university residence hall with local students that were studying from across the country. Sunday through Thursday I was in the classroom practicing Arabic, and on the weekends (Friday and Saturday) I got to explore the city of Alexandria and the rest of the Egypt. While I was in this program I learned a lot about the cultural nuances in Egypt and the various perspectives regarding feminism, politics, and the role of religion in everyday life.

The experience that I will take with me is the political events that occurred leading up to the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011. I remember the media frenzy after Honsi Mubarak reauthorized the Emergency Laws, the death of Khalid Saiid in Alexandria by the police, and the political tension that was building towards the fall elections.

I chose this program because it fulfilled a language requirement; however looking back this program exceeded my expectations. This experience provided more than just language education, but a deeper understanding of the complex sociopolitical dynamics of Egypt.

– Eric Boscan, Graduate Study Abroad Assistant

Behind My Favorite Photo From Abroad

One of my favorite memories from studying abroad was the time that I snuck into a private beach for the Egyptian military. It was the middle of July and it was ridiculously hot in Alexandria. Luckily the city enjoys the cool breeze from the Mediterranean, however the humidity and congestion of the city make you feel like a walking puddle in a polo.

The public beaches in Alexandria are plentiful, yet they are very crowded and not the cleanest places. So one of my program chaperones wanted to take us to a more secluded beach in the Montaza Gardens and Palace. This place is stunning with lush gardens, a royal palace and hotel directly east of central Alexandria. The public beach there was crowded, and with a group of American students in a crowded beach, we garnered a lot of attention. So our chaperone had a friend who was in the military and had access to one of the private beaches in the gardens. This beach was strictly reserved for the military and their families. Our chaperone and his friend had to distract a security guard to check the few guests that he was allowed and then sneak the rest of us through a fence.  Nobody noticed the additional Americans at the beach, however luckily there were enough locals for us to pass as other people’s guests.

Week 5 Blog

The scenery at this beach was everything we wanted. Open space, privacy, and cleaner that most public beaches. This was our first beach day in our program and one of the few that we were able to have. In the picture above you can see part of the beach looking west along the Alexandrian coastline stretching for miles rimmed with endless apartment buildings. It was quite the luxury to go to the beach and enjoy clean waters, sands, and do some language study in the sun at an uncrowded beach.

Eric Boscan, Graduate Study Abroad Assistant

Tiff’s Survival Guide for Jordan

Tiff Jordan 1

My adventures abroad in Amman, Jordan was one of the most exciting yet toughest experiences of my life to date. In thinking back on my experience I have compiled a list of tips, must do’s, and keep-away-froms.

1. For shopping, cafes, and just hanging out – Go to Jebel Al-Webdeh. Webdeh is in the old part of Amman, and is a great little hipster neighborhood that can meet all your coffee-sheesha-souq shopping needs. There are delicious falafel stands, amazing places for local music and a really rad youth culture, as well as good shops for doing some tourist shopping (that isn’t overpriced, and don’t sell golden camel statues)

Tiff Jordan 2

2. Learn the circle-system quickly! The roads in Amman are distinctly divided up into 7 huge round a bouts that cut diagonally down through the city. You’ll learn that giving directions to a cab driver generally begins with which circle you want to go to. Addresses aren’t totally a thing in Jordan, so you direct your cab driver based off of landmarks. You tell him you want to go near King Abdullah Mosque, then direct him from there. For all your directionally-challenged people like me, don’t worry, you’ll adapt quickly – or get lost a lot.

3. Sidewalks are not for walking – Being a pedestrian can be almost as wild of an adventure as being on the road! Most sidewalks have cars parked on them at some point, dip down and stop in the middle of no where, or have giant trees planted right in the middle to the point that you actually cannot walk on the sidewalk. I tried for maybe a month, and then just resigned myself to walking in the street most of the time.

4. Americans are slobs – by this I mean that the university students in Jordan really have their act together when it comes to fashion. There is certainly no such thing as wearing sweats or a hoodie to class. I wore my Debate Team hoodie and my hair in my staple messy bun one day, and looked homeless in comparison to these girls. The girls are incredibly beautiful, and match their ENTIRE outfits. I wear almost exclusively neutral tones because I am so bad at matching, so I had nothing on these women. They used elaborate colors and patterns to match their hijab to their overcoats to their purses and shoes and fingernails. The guys look equally put together, mostly wearing loafers, button ups and sweaters, and nice jeans. Paying $50 for American Eagle to rip holes in your jeans is definitely not a fashion statement here.

Tiff Jordan 3

5. Eat Local! – You will fall in love with the local cuisine, just like studying abroad anywhere really. The falafel, hummus, and shawarma is absolutely unbeatable, and cheap! Eating local foods is significantly cheaper than eating American style food, so help your wallet and eat the local foods. For the absolute best hummus in Jordan, go downtown to Mataam Hashem… You won’t be disappointed.

6. Prices are negotiable – Learn to bargain, or your wallet will suffer from your American-ness. Prices of nearly everything in Jordan can be negotiated. This goes even beyond just taxis or souqs, I knew a group of about ten girls who went all together to get a gym membership and were even able to negotiate that price. Be prepared to haggle in the souqs, and to really hone your skills you can try downtown! It’s not being rude, it’s just part of the culture in many instances!

7. Finally, the Middle East WILL steal your heart. You might not notice it happening, but sooner or later, this region, the people, the sounds, and the sights will make you fall in love. Amman stole my heart my second weekend abroad, when I was lucky enough to attend a BBQ with some local friends who owned an olive tree farm that overlooked the Dead Sea. I sat in a large circle with delicious food, new friends, and could see the lights and the border of Palestine in the distance. I knew right then that the Middle East had gotten me, and I would probably be returning back for the rest of my life.

Tiff Jordan 4– Tiffany Wilk, Study Abroad Assistant

The Perks of Living in the Middle East

  1. History

Eric Blog 4

No matter where you are, there is history on every corner. Not just “oh this happened 200 years ago…” more like “back in the days of the first major civilizations in history over a few thousand years ago…”

Amazing architecture surrounds you, wherever you go.

  1. Scenery:

Eric Blog 5

Camping trips in the desert are amazing, and oasis cities are very relaxing. Sand boarding is amazing and riding a jeep up and down sand tunes is probably one of the best thrills anyone will experience.

  1. Food:

Eric Blog 6

Great coffee can be found anywhere you go! Also, shwarma is a staple and can be found at any restaurant or street vendor.

  1. Activities:

Eric Blog 7

Huka is inexpensive and better than anything you can find in the U.S.

Inshallah and Ma3lish is a life philosophy. So if something doesn’t happen immediately, that’s OK. Take your time and enjoy life each day, stuff will get done in its own time.

  1. Weather:

Eric Blog 8

It is always warm, you only need clothing for nice sunny weather and don’t have to worry about packing winter clothes.

  1. Friendship:

Eric Blog 9

Everyone is very friendly and social. Also, when someone calls you a friend, they mean it! Friendships are important in the Middle East.

– Eric Boscan, Study Abroad Assistant