Over Christmas and the New Year holiday, NOIVA led an aid project in northwest Jordan. A total of 200 volunteers worked diligently to support refugee families. The interaction with the children and adults left a lasting impression on everyone involved. Jordanian television, an influential sheikh, the management of the Zaatari Refugee Camp and the Swiss ambassador contributed as well to an unforgettable experience. The team members were pleased to realize how much could be achieved in a period of just nine days.
There are many reasons that the volunteers are now able to think back on their experience with a somewhat teary smile. For one thing, there was the culture shock of going from the Christmas commercialism in Switzerland directly to a provincial town full of war refugees. Winterthur, where the NOIVA foundation was established, and Mafraq, 15 kilometers from the Syrian border, are somewhat comparable in terms of population. Otherwise, they have nothing in common with each other. For us Swiss, this mission was a short journey into another world. One can only imagine what it is like to live there. Most of the people we met on site have been in Mafraq for a while; one, two, three years. Their hard life has become their “new normal”. Somehow, they manage to get by. When we asked people how they were doing, they often spread out their arms, gazed at the sky and said, “Thanks to God, we are alive and reasonably healthy.” But there were also those who almost collapse under the weight of their problems: young mothers with throngs of hungry children, large families whose fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers or sons died at war, or those who must take care of disabled, chronically ill, war-wounded or traumatized family members, often without any aid or professional assistance.
Crowded communities in the border area
Living space is severely limited. Some barely manage to scrape together money for the rent because, officially, refugees are not allowed to be employed. Even vital food stamps and food are sold, in order to get some cash. “We would rather die in Syria than live in the streets here”, a woman told us. Many homes have leaky roofs, broken windows, drafty cracks, and no insulation or heating. During our mission, the weather was dry and mild, yet we were cold on our house visits. It is hard to imagine how difficult it is there in the rain, snow and freezing temperatures, which are all part of the Jordanian winter season. In particular, nights can be bitterly cold in the desert region. In the midst of these difficult circumstances, for many Syrians and Iraqis, the uncertainty of their future is the most unsettling. When asked about their dreams, they answered, “We want as quickly as possible to be home again.” They do not acknowledge that things will never again be the same for them, and that countless relatives, friends and neighbors will never return. However, they certainly have that unspoken realization, and also know that in light of the ongoing conflicts in their homeland, there is no immediate end in sight.
Host countries are overwhelmed
It is difficult for refugees to be in a foreign country. But, for the host countries, it is also very difficult economically, socially and politically. They groan under the additional burden of hundreds of thousands of newcomers, most of whom are impoverished. The city of Mafraq is particularly affected because of its proximity to the border. The population there has been more than doubled by the wave of refugees. Wages have fallen, prices have exploded, and the infrastructure is completely overloaded. The poor natives do not live any better than the refugees, for they are also suffering from the housing shortage and high prices. It is understandable that this environment is a breeding ground for conflicts. The various shortages are the catalyst for rivalries. We are convinced that it is equally important to assist the impoverished Jordanians as well. In our limited efforts to do that during this trip, we would occasionally encounter a bit of resentment on either side. More often, however, we witnessed helpfulness and selflessness. For example, a Jordanian family received their food package and then immediately gave it to their Syrian neighbors who needed it more. All in all, we were impressed by the openness and gratitude of the people. Many told us their stories and showed us photos. Sometimes there were tears, but laughs were shared as well. People were amazed that we had come from so far away. Some expressed how much that meant to them. “Your love is worth more to us than the supplies that you bring“, a woman said. And another said, “What you are doing for us, helps us to forget what we have seen in Syria.“ As for the children, they were like a dry sponge, absorbing any attention and affection they could get. They trusted us completely and enjoyed spending time with us.
Only a small beginning
The longer we stayed, the more we became aware of our shortcomings. Material, time and personnel were only sufficient to temporarily help a fraction of the needy in this city. It hurt to have to say “No”. Gradually we learned to accept that we couldn’t help everyone. It was heart-breaking to have to accept our limitations, but to choose to do nothing was not an option. We tried to focus on the good that we could do, and remind ourselves that even the smallest sign of care and concern for those in need makes a difference in their lives. We will never forget those joyful faces and heartfelt hugs. On the flight back to our cherished homeland, our hearts were overflowing. We were touched by the plight that we had seen, ashamed that we often do not realize how incredibly privileged we are, and determined to continue to work for people who cannot defend themselves. Above all, we were overwhelmed by the mutual giving and taking we witnessed. We came home with an experience that, in so many ways, caused us to have a more beautiful Christmas than we could ever have imagined.
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- The children’s program consisted of an inviting and varied mix of games, songs, stories, short films and crafts with a mid-morning or afternoon snack included. Both staff and kids were full of enthusiasm. Discipline was always a challenge. It was not easy to maintain an acceptable degree of peace and order in a group of up to 200 children, but the cheerful faces made more than up for it!
- Women and maternity services offered a protected environment to speak about personal problems. A Swiss hairdresser, herself a mother of four, gave new haircuts and styled their hair. This was very popular among the female refugees. In true-to-life presentations, women were encouraged and taught the importance of their role in the family, and that they can instruct their children in a way that is crucial for their children’s future well being.
- In the medical clinic, professionals from Switzerland, Jordan and Egypt (including an orthopedic surgeon, a pediatrician, a general practitioner and a specialist in internal medicine) cooperated closely to examine and advise patients and administer medicine. Up to 150 people were treated daily. Colds were particularly frequent, but also joint pain, especially for the elderly. In some unfortunate cases, all we could do was to hand out painkillers, since we were not able to perform surgery.
- A team of Swiss opticians with a refractometer conducted on-the-spot eye tests, consulted patients and gave away eyeglasses specially designed to correct their defective vision. This was made possible thanks to a special type of eyewear filled with liquid silicone. By adjusting the pressure placed on the silicone, the curvature of the plastic lens can be modified until the optimal correction is achieved. The interest was overwhelming, for many visually impaired refugees cannot afford glasses.
- Mobile craftsmen teams, consisting of sanitation workers, masons, carpenters, electrical engineers and farmers, worked diligently to repair damaged and poorly constructed living quarters. They encountered leaky roofs, broken windows, unhinged doors, clogged drains, shoddy faucets, lack of power supply, and many other defects. Usually within an hour or two, by combining some repair material with plenty of creativity and Swiss quality tools, the maximum was achieved in order to improve the quality of life for those being assisted.
- Most of the volunteers formed small traveling teams. With the help of volunteer interpreters, they made home visits to families in need. They listened to stories, encouraged the refugees and handed out food parcels, clothes and diapers, along with children’s toys, gifts and souvenirs from Switzerland. During these visits, there were many touching moments with lots of laughter and tears. It was very touching to witness the hospitality and generosity of the people.
Every night from 16:00 to 17:00, a cultural program was held in the City Hall. This included plenty of music (Swiss German, Arabic and English songs), a speech, and sometimes a short play. Before and after the program, there was enough time for small talk that frequently incorporated the use of hands and feet, along with a bit of Arabic, as well as for various types of “clapping” games. These things helped form friendship – sometimes without words, but full of laughter and hugs.