A student’s journey from a boarding school in Rome to the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world.
By H.D. Wright
The road to Za’atari. Photograph by H.D. Wright
Amman—Sitting in the back of a rickety truck at the age of 17, as it climbed up and slid down miles and miles of dunes, leaving the world behind in our sandy wake, one of the camp’s dentists leaned over and whispered to me: there it is, the dark side of the moon. I peered out the window of the truck over the rocky landscape, and there it was, sprawling across the horizon: Za’atari refugee camp, the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world.
7 months earlier
It was a Monday morning in Rome. The sun was rising, painting the buildings orange. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this Monday was about to change my life. A day earlier, I had volunteered alongside Syrian refugees in a local kitchen, one of the few initiatives in the city supporting the Syrian refugee community. I had originally begun volunteering in the kitchen because, having recently visited Syrian settlements in Berlin and Munich with the NY Times, I felt that I had a responsibility to do more to help the Syrians residing in Europe.
On this Monday, a day after serving in the kitchen, I learned that Jordan Hattar, a Syrian refugee activist, was visiting my school to speak about his experience working in Za’atari refugee camp.
With each word, Jordan painted a picture of the camp and its inhabitants: the metal housing units stuck in the sand, the families waiting patiently inside them, and the tall gates and the barbed wire enclosing it all.
As Jordan’s presentation came to a close, I wanted to ask him how I could help, how I could turn that feeling of empathy into action, but as the school filed out into the halls, he was lost among the crowd.
I trudged to the cafeteria and sat down at an empty table, sorely wondering if I’d missed my only opportunity to speak to him. As I cursed myself under my breath, a figure sat down across from me. I looked up from my tray, expecting to see a friend, but to my surprise, it was Jordan.
For the next few months, as I finished my sophomore year of high school in Rome, and studied in New Haven and London over the summer, Jordan and I stayed in touch. After months of correspondence and planning, it was confirmed: we were going to Za’atari, the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world.
As our car edged closer, I glimpsed the outlines of the camp, a sea of white metal boxes spreading across the desert.
‘Housing units’ in Za’atari refugee camp. Photograph by H.D. Wright
Figures behind the walls of the camp came into focus, many of them children. And then we saw the soldiers, dressed in combat fatigues, holding machine guns. After presenting our paperwork to the guards at the gates, we were ushered past the barbed wire and into the confines of the maze.
I stepped out of the car into a makeshift parking lot, noticing only four other cars. I saw no one else with a camera draped around their neck, clutching a notebook and pencil. In a world of constant ‘breaking news,’ the stories of these refugees were being forgotten.
An alley in Za’atari refugee camp. Photo by H.D. Wright
The wire and the desert had forced the refugees into a state of isolated imprisonment, trapped between a painful past and an uncertain future, discouraged from following the road into Jordan, yet unable to retrace their steps back home. Stranded on the Jordan-Syria border, they are everywhere and nowhere all at once, held captive between the sand and the sky.
Over the next few hours, I interviewed and photographed scores of families. Fathers told me how much they wanted to go back to work. Mothers told me how much they wished their children could go to school. And the children, approaching me with wide-eyes and smiles, asked for fist bumps and pictures, unaware of all that they had already lost. One theme traced a thread from family to family: the fervent wish to integrate into a new society and resume the rhythm of living.
H.D. Wright with a Syrian family at the Syrian American Medical Society. Photograph by Amelie Davidkhanian Wright
After hours of hushed conversations, a soldier informed us that it was time to leave. We got back in the van and drove out through the gates, leaving this forgotten world behind in an unresolved cloud of dust.
A mother and her son through the fence of Za’atari. Photograph by H.D. Wright
On the plane home, as we passed Egypt and glided over Italy, I thought of all of the students who would never be able to see what I saw. I wanted them to be able to see past the veil of obscurity separating East from West, refugee from citizen, so I thought back on how I had cast it aside.
I realized that the simple magic that had joined our two disparate realities was empathy. I would not have wandered into that kitchen on the outskirts of Rome without it. I would not have met Jordan and embarked upon this trip without it. And there is no hope for a better future without it, for empathy helps us see each other, beneath the aggressive headlines that obscure us, behind the statistics that reduce and mislead. Empathy provides a window into other worlds, and once you have looked through it, you cannot look away.
Although empathy is the breathing spirit of humanitarianism, it must be practiced elsewhere, for our world is divided by misinformation, racked with polarisation, and rife with religious conflict. We must find commonality in our global society, not just because the Spartan example proves that closed societies rarely last long, but because of the looming threat of global warming. If we stand up to this challenge, we can turn empathy into action, and begin to build a world free from the ashes of apathy--one that takes care of us all.