"Treat them as they are": How a safe space helped a young refugee blossom

Jordan, Syria

August 20, 2018

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  • ALL PHOTOS: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps

Amani, 14, has a smile that lights up the whole room. She's shy and fidgety at first — sitting in a low chair in one of Mercy Corps' safe spaces within Azraq refugee camp in Jordan — but after a few minutes of talking she opens up and speaks confidently. She tells us that she and her family fled the war in Syria a year and a half ago, and they've lived here in Azraq camp ever since.

At first, Amani's life in the camp was confined to her family's shelter and outings for chores. Every day she helped her mother and cared for her siblings. School wasn't an option when they first arrived. "Before I came to Mercy Corps, we used to go buy, like, grocery and food for the house. And I was helping my mother and cleaning the home and also cooking," she says.

Young refugees like Amani are often forced to grow up too fast, faced with adult decisions and traumatic circumstances. Even so, she doesn't complain about the work she does at home. In fact, as the eldest sibling she seems to take pride in helping her family.

But Amani is here to tell us about how her life has changed since those first few months in the camp. She's in school now and she comes to the Mercy Corps spaces every day to learn life skills, play and make friends. When she first started coming, one of the Mercy Corps facilitators, Hameda, noticed that Amani was shy and didn't move much, even during the sports activities.

"We use sports to teach life skills and leadership skills to kids, so the activity needs people to move, and to jump, and to play football, and to go around the whole center," Hameda says. "So, I noticed that she is not moving a lot. She is always by herself, and she is shy to talk."

She also noticed that Amani was very small for her age. After talking with her parents, Hameda and the other facilitators learned that Amani suffers from complications due to diabetes. She is only able to go to the hospital for treatment once a month, and the disease has stunted her growth and made movement more difficult. Knowing this, Hameda began taking extra time with Amani during her sessions, finding ways to work with her and help her participate in the group activities.

"I felt that the disease affected her, and also, it's killing her spirit. So that's why I decided to work with her because that's what my job is telling me to do. Not just for Amani, for the other kids — I look at them as different cases because each one has [their] own stories, and we have to treat them as they are."

It's hard to imagine Amani as anything but the warm and bright girl that we met, but Hameda says it's the activities that have given her that positivity. "After she discovered that there's lessons learned out of those activities, she started coming and asking for those activities."

During both the life skills sessions and the sports-based activities, facilitators like Hameda help refugees like Amani learn about things like communication, teamwork, responsibility, identity and leadership. By far, Hameda tells us, Amani's favorite lesson was responsibility. After helping her family for so long, she finally had a word to describe the small accomplishments she completes every day in the camp.

"After I gave the session, she came to me and she told me 'I really love this — to know what responsibility is. This shows me that I was and I am responsible in my home. I am responsible to have a small plan to [go to] the center, to go to study, go to school, come back home,'" Hameda says.

With renewed confidence and special help from Hameda, Amani began to eagerly participate in all her activities. She made friends and even began to dream about the future. "I want to be a dentist just to help people. I want to travel around the world, to see it and to help cure people."

When asked if there's anything she would want to tell people around the world, she says with a smile, "I want to tell them where our caravan is located for them to come and visit us."

As we talked, Amani told us about one thing that she's found joy and solace in all this time: crocheting at home with her mother. Amani excitedly offered to show us some of her work back at her family's caravan. When we arrive, her parents welcomed us into the small space and Amani and her mother pulled out some of her creations.

Back in Syria, Amani's mother Naja taught adolescents crafts like crochet and knitting. Here in Jordan, she's passing on the tradition to Amani and her sisters. "I love to give the young girls the skills that I have," she says. Amani showed us a recent creation: a small pink purse, complete with a functional strap and a decorative flower on the front.

Amani eagerly modeled the purse for us, and I smiled seeing the confidence on her face. She and her mother both apologized earlier that they didn't have many items to show us — Amani gives most of her crochet work away to her friends. "I make lovely things to give to lovely people," she says with a smile.

As I admired her work, Amani sat down and handed me the pink bag, saying that she would like me to have it. Amani has so few things of her own in this small metal caravan that is her temporary home — and this bag clearly brings her joy. I couldn't imagine accepting it, and tried to politely decline her offer. But Amani, and her parents over her shoulder, insisted that it is simply a gift.

Eventually we left the caravan after saying our goodbyes and thanking Amani for telling us her story. Despite the difficult circumstances of life as a refugee, and her own personal challenges, Amani’s kind and generous spirit shines through. Now, whenever I look at the beautiful pink bag she created, I'm reminded of Amani and I know that she's on her way to great things.

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