First Person

Staying strong to help Syria’s refugees

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Sally Mouallem working with children in Zaatari camp. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam
Sally Mouallem working with children in Zaatari camp. Photo: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Oxfam America’s president Ray Offenheiser, director of humanitarian response Mike Delaney, and director of media Matt Herrick are in Jordan and Lebanon this week, visiting Oxfam’s efforts to help refugees from the conflict in Syria. Below, Offenheiser shares his thoughts on a visit to Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp.

There are more than 120,000 heartbreaking and humbling stories inside the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, now the second largest refugee camp in the world. On Sunday, as temperatures soared past 90 degrees, thousands of Syrian families sought shade inside their UNHCR tents and trailers. Some were kind enough to welcome us into their homes. We went from tent to tent, trailer to trailer, water tap to kitchen, talking with one Syrian family after another. For a short time, we stopped atop a small hill—one of Zaatari’s only distinguishable vantage points—and scanned the homes bleached white against the khaki sand. I watched the heat shimmer off the hard-packed ground. I saw clutches of men congregate and talk under clouds of cigarette smoke like in any Middle Eastern street scene. And from within one undistinguished trailer, I heard the squealing of children wash across the camp until it reached us like a cool breeze.

Jeff Silverman, Oxfam’s social mobilization, gender, and accountability specialist, guided us toward the happy gathering.  In a sense, Jeff is a fixer of problems. He is respected by the Syrians living in Zaatari because he listens to everything—the good with the bad—and empowers each member of the community to work out solutions to thorny issues. Walking 100 yards with Jeff through Zaatari is a lesson in community organizing. He plays with kids. He delegates management decisions to staff. He listens intently to community leaders. He offers kind words to all passersby. His philosophy is simple: “People want to be heard,” he said. “I help residents have a say.”

Indeed. When some of the camp’s toilets and shower stalls had been vandalized, Oxfam and Jeff changed the camp’s approach to delivery of water and sanitation services by engaging the residents in design and installation of this essential infrastructure. Since then, 48 toilet and shower blocks, as well as water taps, have been installed in the camp’s eastern district, opened in the spring to accommodate an influx of 90,000 Syrian refugees. Each block—the size of a two-car garage—is adorned with tiles painted by children who use the facilities.

It’s a small thing, a simple approach to a complex problem—ensuring that people in crisis have dignity and ownership of their lives in situations of high vulnerability. But it’s made a big difference at Zaatari. It’s why I love Oxfam and appreciate our staff and our commitment to confronting injustices big and small.

When we reached the trailer, two neat rows of freshly painted tiles were drying in the sun. Inside, a class of boys was busy painting. Their volunteer instructor was Sally Mouallem, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee who lives in Jordan outside of the camp. Roughly 80% of Syria’s 2 million refugees live in non-camp settings in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.

Sally had earned her degree in Syria and was teaching kindergarten classes before she and her family fled. She comes to Zaatari nearly every day, she said, to “make a real difference.”

“I really wanted to contribute—to make a difference. It was hard at first. Whenever I saw an old person or a child, I would cry because I thought about what we had lost. But my friends here, they said, ‘Stay strong.’ And I did.”

She teaches children how to keep themselves clean and healthy, using painting and drawing lessons to reinforce positive sanitation practices.

“I feel like I am doing something good,” she said.

I look at Jeff. He is beaming. The kids are laughing.

For a moment, the immense tragedy unfolding in Syria is replaced by this beautiful scene. And I won’t forget it.

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