Syrian Refugees Shine in their Own Darkest Hour

Syrian Refugees Shine in their Own Darkest Hour

Publication info

Posted
11/17/15

Originally published by Origin Magazine.

On a recent trip to the Middle East, I met Aziz, who at sixteen is mature beyond his years. He told me in English, one of four languages he speaks, that his name means “proud.” His dad died when Aziz was twelve. And after his neighborhood in Syria came under barrel-bomb attacks, his mom escaped with him and his brother to Turkey, where they knew no one.

With his love of language, Aziz said he wants to be an English professor.

“I want a future,” he said. “I will graduate from high school next year, and then I will go to university. And one day I want to go back to Syria. I can do anything, and if I can bring change for my people, I will do it.”

Aziz’s spirit and confidence soar in spite of a war that imposes heavy hardships on him and more than four million fellow Syrians thrust from their country by the fighting. One of those refugees is Nisreen, who told me her story as I sat cross-legged on the floor of her temporary home in the Azraq refugee camp about sixty miles outside of Jordan’s capital, Amman.

She had taught English in Syria, where her husband was an electrician. But war wrecked all of that. It destroyed her home and nearly her husband, who was severely injured in an attack. She and her family now chase a new normal in Jordan—“strangers in a strange land,” she said.

Another mother told me of her two older boys, aged nine and thirteen, who never missed a day of school in Syria but now have to work full time to feed the family. I immediately thought of my own children, who are ten and twelve, and tried to imagine such a heavy burden resting on their shoulders. Perhaps picking up on this, the mother felt a need to explain further. She raised her six-year-old son’s shirt to reveal a jagged scar from shrapnel that had ripped through his little body.

“What choice did I have but to leave?” she asked.

What choice indeed? No six-year-old—or mother—should ever be so scarred. Millions of people—shopkeepers, lawyers, engineers, construction workers, teachers, electricians—have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their families. For many, their only choice has been to run. In addition to the more than 4 million who have left the country are 7.5 million displaced inside Syria.

Most of the people I met in Jordan and Turkey had fled their homes with nothing but a suitcase and the determination to one day return. They told me candidly how that
determination wrestles with despair, and at times they’re not sure which will prevail. But Nisreen, who once spent evenings cooking dinner and helping her son with his homework, said she had discovered her own strength in the midst of chaos. She now applies it to helping others as one of CARE’s community advocates. She finds purpose as
their champion. Volunteers like Nisreen, who share the language, culture, and struggles of those they serve, are often best equipped to effectively serve and help their fellow refugees. They receive extensive training on how to identify and report cases of domestic violence, for example, and to advise refugees on how, where, and when to seek medical care. Because the response still lacks sufficient support—the UN’s overall humanitarian appeal, like CARE’s, is less than half-funded—they must identify the most vulnerable families to be prioritized for aid such as cash vouchers so they can eat, pay rent, and buy the basics to survive. But it’s the volunteers’ empathy and compassion, more than any training, that lead the way.

Compassion has been CARE’s lifeblood since we were  founded seventy years ago this month as a way for Americans to send CARE Packages to war-weary families in Europe. Just as then, we find in survivors now an ability to radiate light, even in their darkest hour, and in supporters around the world a commitment to helping them. I think again of Aziz, whose words—in all four languages—are mature beyond his years: “We are all refugees with similar struggles going through this together. The best possible hope we can receive is through helping each other.

Aziz may have been speaking about his fellow refugees, but his message holds true for all of us.

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