Memories of a week at Camp Zaatari, by Cyrus Horst

Memories of a week at Camp Zaatari

Forced from their homes,
With only the clothes on their back
And their most prized possessions,
Yet their personalities carry much more

Lost sisters, brothers, and parents,
Homes they can never return to,
Yet they don’t hesitate to accept us
Into their family

Tents patched hastily,
Far too close together,
Forming one, dull landscape.
And yet, their dignity adds all the color
One could possibly wish for.

No light shined on them,
An entire people, forgotten,
As the world turns away,
And yet, their smiles shine the brightest

An evolving culture,
A new, robust economy,
And an insatiable entrepreneurial spirit
Are all proof of the willful resilience
Of these strong and competent people

Given such a challenging life,
Most would give in to hopelessness,
But the Kids of Zaatari leave such an enduring mark
That they can’t be forgotten anymore

Over the summer, I traveled to Amman, Jordan with the Project Turquoise Youth Committee to complete a program within the Za’atari refugee camp. We were traveling to the camp to finally meet a group of kids who we had been interacting with and supporting for almost a year through skype calls and fundraisers. Although the committee had been working to support Syrian refugees for quite some time, for most of us, this was our first time actually connecting with real people who had lived the horrors of the Syrian Civil War. Prior to the trip, each of us were given an activity to lead like sports, science, music, etc. We had to compose a lesson plan and decide on what we wanted to teach the Syrian youth. We were all super excited and appreciative that Project Turquoise and their partner organization, Relief International, had worked tirelessly to make the trip happen. Arriving in Jordan, I had a basic idea of what the camps were like. Or at least I thought I did. After seeing many short films portraying refugees as downcast and in desperate need of external aid, I expected to encounter a group of discouraged kids who had lost hope for the future. But after spending several days with the group, I realized that my expectations were so far from the truth. As we entered the camp on the first day, what struck me first were the colors. The camp uses “caravans” as housing units, big aluminum boxes that are a more permanent alternative to canvas tents. Each caravan in the Relief International center (the only place we were allowed to be in the entire camp) was painted bright colors with beautiful designs and powerful messages. It was nothing like the drab, barren environment I had anticipated. When we shuffled nervously into the classroom, we weren’t greeted by apprehensive expressions but by glowing smiles. I knew immediately that these kids were anything but hopeless and dejected. As we introduced ourselves and began working on our first activity, where we would help our partners write an introduction in english and they would help us write one in arabic, I was blown away by the depth of some of their thoughts. While most of the American kids wrote what sports they enjoyed and how old they were, the Syrian kids expressed their dreams of a better future. When we finished the sentences, we all got on a bus to be taken to a soccer field. By then, any drop of awkwardness I had expected had evaporated. The Syrian kids fearlessly struck up conversations about favorite teams and players. We began to speak to each other as friends, and forgot about how we had been given the world, and the world had taken so much away from them. As the day progressed, it became apparent that no lesson plans would be followed; we were having too much fun. In music class, instead of us teaching them an American song, they taught us the Dabkeh, a traditional Syrian dance. After 5 minutes of Art class, we all left to play soccer again. As we reached the end of the day, I realized just how wrong I was. Never in my life had I formed such a tight bond with a group of people so quickly. The close friendship can be mostly attributed to our rejection of the idea that we were there to teach them in favor of us just wanting to be with them and enjoy their company. If either group learned anything in the process, it was a plus, but not a necessity. As days went by, we continued having fun, learning from each other unintentionally, and relishing each others company. Never once did they seem resentful of our inexplicable, undeserved privilege. They were mature enough to recognize their reality, but ambitious enough to have dreams beyond the gates of the camp. Saying goodbye to these kids was one of the most difficult things I had ever done in my life. As I gave my new best friends hugs with tears streaming down my face, they kept saying one thing, “don’t forget me.” I knew in my heart that this experience was one I would never forget, but for them, being forgotten was all too familiar.

Since the trip, fundraising has become a much more personal experience. Instead of raising money for numbers on a statistics sheet, I’m raising money for my good friends in Za’atari. I am now more dedicated than ever to making sure they know the world has not forgotten about them.

Cyrus Horst

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