“Master of My own Destiny”

A group of teens from DC area high schools, part of a nonprofit called Project Turquoise (PT), traveled to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan during the summer of 2018. They had spent the previous year raising awareness of the refugee crisis amongst their peers; and had raised funds, through 5K runs and movie screenings, to provide sports equipment and shoes for kids at Zaatari. They planned projects they would do with their Syrian friends, from science experiments to sports to photography – but were likely not prepared for the overwhelming impact that these few days together would have on them. The kids formed strong bonds – painting a massive mural together with Project Turquoise emblazoned in bright yellow; learning words and expressions in each other’s language; singing “We Are the Champions” together; playing endless soccer games in the blazing June sun; simply being, teenage kids. Their last day, they went on a hike; for many of the Syrian teens it was the first time they had seen trees in years, and they would stop to take pictures. The kids took selfies, exchanged WhatsApp numbers and small gifts, and the boys, hand in hand, did the traditional Syrian dabke dance, as Arabic music played from their phones. When it was time to say goodbye, the hugs were long, the emotions ran deep, and the tears flowed freely. One of the PT teens summed it up this way, “You expect them to be different, but in so many ways they are so similar to you. The kindness and grace and dignity they show you is amazing; I can’t even believe that people who have lost so much can still smile so much.”

The Project Turquoise kids were determined not to let the few days with their friends at Zaatari refugee camp be the end of this story. They decided to raise funds for college scholarships for their new friends; and as soon as they got back to DC, got busy planning fundraisers. The kids at Zaatari took their tawjihi college entrance exams, submitted applications, and poured their dreams into heartfelt essays. Four Syrian teens, two boys and two girls, were selected, with EdSeed, an organization that facilitates scholarships for refugee students, overseeing the process. The essays the Syrian teens submitted provide a brief glimpse into their courage, tenacity, resilience, and character. One shared that he wants to study nursing because he “wants to feel good about healing others”; and that if he were to graduate from college, he would be the first person in his family to do so. Another wrote that in Syria he had nine close friends and they had pledged to be friends for life. But two drowned while attempting to escape to Europe, three died of cancer, four were involved in a car accident, himself included, and only he survived. “I would like to fulfill this dream for all of us, in their honor,” this 18 year old hero wrote. Another has been living at Zaatari for seven years and talked about the harsh conditions, like continuous power outages, which makes studying difficult. She said her mother is her source of strength and wants to honor her sacrifices by studying hard, becoming a pharmacist, and becoming “the master of my own destiny.” Another shared her dream of becoming a computer engineer and her love for Tae kwon do and photography. “Education is potent weapon in the hands of women; once educated nobody can stop our dream,” she wrote.

Over Thanksgiving 2019, our Project Turquoise (PT) kids got a chance to Skype with their four Syrian friends who had started college on the scholarships. On a large screen, images popped up, in 9 boxes (like the Brady Bunch ) of the four Syrian teens at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan; of three EdSeed organizers in different US cities; of our group of 25 or so PT kids and parents sitting in a room in Virginia; and one PT member who had to head back to college as a snow storm was approaching, but managed to get a connection on his phone as he trudged through a blizzard, bundled in layers of hats and scarves, snow filling the bottom right corner of our screen. Technology is incredible. The kids exchanged news, asked about their other Zaatari friends, and about their experiences at college and their favorite subjects. Zayd asked his friend Ziad, with whom he had played endless games of soccer at Zaatari, if he was playing in college and what position he plays. Ziad asked PT member Alex if he still speaks Arabic, and Alex responded in Arabic, to everyone’s excitement. PT teen Yassi shared with Dania that she too is studying chemistry and asked for tips as Dania is doing well in the subject. The Syrian teens shared how proud and supportive their parents are of them for starting college, despite the challenges of living in a refugee camp. Our PT kids suggested setting up a WhatsApp group so they could tutor each other in subjects that they are each strong in. Then, Dania pulled a white kitten onto her lap and asked, “do you like cats??” Her cat’s name is Candy, and she’s 5 years and 26 days old. The kids melted in oohs and ahhs, and the story continues ….


Author: Salma Hasan Ali