I never thought hiking through the Jordanian desert was going to wind me up on the stage of Gaston Hall. One of the people I met on a hike during the second week of my Fall 2014 semester abroad in Jordan was the head of an NGO that ran programs in the Zaatari Camp for Syrian refugees located in northern Jordan, four miles south of the Syrian border.
She said the organization was looking for volunteers; I was soon spending every other weekend working in the camp. This was my first direct exposure to a humanitarian crisis of such a massive scale.
Zaatari Camp was home to 80,000 Syrian refugees when I began working there in 2014, which was down from a high of 150,000 the year before. This population concentration made the camp Jordan’s fourth-largest city at the time. While Zaatari is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, many people do not realize that the majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan actually live in urban populations. Current estimates have the total number of Syrian refugees living in Jordan at roughly 650,000, which represents over 10 percent of the total population.
Of the 19.5 million refugees in the world today, four million are Syrian. Among the total 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons in the world, eight million are Syrian. These numbers make Syrians the world’s largest refugee population and today’s total world refugee population is the highest since World War II.
I suppose it is that fact that got me interested in the Syrian refugee crisis. My late grandmother fled Nazi-occupied Belgium in 1940 with her two brothers and parents and spent a year travelling by foot, bike and train. Separated from their parents for a period, the three children pretended to be Catholic and were given shelter in a nunnery run by Nazi-sympathizers in France. After reuniting, the family hid what little money and jewelry they had left in the spine of a children’s book and took a train through Spain, arriving in Portugal where they boarded one of the last ships heading for the United States in 1941.
I had the opportunity to retrace my family’s escape route following my senior year of high school in 2012, but little did I realize then that two years later I’d step foot amid a modern-day refugee crisis of similar proportions 2,000 miles away in the Middle East.
Parallels in refugee crises are not just limited to those of World War II and Syria. I was fortunate to spend much of the weekend with another TEDxGeorgetown speaker who flew in from Poland to discuss his experience navigating the horrors of the Ukrainian war. There was one line in his speech that particularly stood out to me because I had heard the same words spoken by my great-uncle two years before when I interviewed him about my family’s escape route. Their message was that it is perfectly normal for listeners to hear these stories and think, “Wow how miraculous,” or “It’s so amazing you survived through all that.”
The reality is though that everyone who has survived these crises has a miraculous story because otherwise they would not have survived. Therefore, in listening to these stories, make it a point to go beyond just reflecting on the miracle they survived and remember both the thousands of others who have similar experiences and the millions who are still at risk.
Oftentimes, the numbers we read about in the news blur together. This is why Patrick and I hoped to shed light on this crisis by highlighting the story of our friend who succeeded in winning a scholarship opportunity to leave Zaatari and study in Canada.
Through our talk, we also hoped to inspire audience members and viewers to take action. At Georgetown, Patrick and I established the Foundation for the Advancement of Refugee Education, with the goal of bringing at least one qualified Syrian refugee to campus. We hope to have the first candidate ready for admission to the Georgetown Class of 2020.
I was also reminded last weekend that people’s journeys as a result of a refugee crisis do not end when they arrive somewhere safe and begin a new life. This is only the beginning. In the breakout session following our talk, a Venezuelan woman who had seen high levels of violence in her country and who now lives in the United States, expressed feelings of guilt for being in a safer position than friends and family back home to which our Syrian friend agreed. There is no such thing as comprehensive resettlement or complete reconciliation. These crises change lives forever.
I wasn’t expecting to learn any of these lessons wading through a desert wadi.
Elijah Jatovsky is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. He will work for the Department of State at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda following graduation.
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