From Empathy to Action: Inside Za'atari Refugee Camp, the Largest Syrian Refugee Camp in the World

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 civilization 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.

February 2019, 7 months earlier

It was a Monday morning in Rome. 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, continuing the work that I had begun weeks earlier, chopping vegetables and organizing supplies to support this initiative, one of the few sources of revenue for the Syrian refugee community in Rome. I had originally begun volunteering in the hopes of learning more about the Syrian refugee crisis--a crisis that up to that point had remained faceless to me, dehumanized by the endless torrent of news and statistics, far removed from the detached American reality that I had previously inhabited. When I arrived in the kitchen, the humanity that had been obscured finally came into focus, and it was not hateful, nor criminal, nor coming to ‘steal our jobs,’ but full of hope, kindness, and an infinite potential for change. This street was coming alive because of them. This community was culturally and economically enriched because of them. But humanity, regardless of what it will add, should be protected at all costs. The Syrian volunteers welcomed me into their kitchen with such warmth that I immediately felt at home. Their embrace was even more remarkable considering that Europe, stirred up by alt-right, fear mongering politicians, had gone to innumerable lengths to exclude them. But they accepted me into their community and shared their language, music, cuisine and eventually, their stories.

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. I sat up straighter in assembly knowing that his experiences would shed light on the struggles of those who had not made it to Europe. In his presentation, Jordan described how his activism in the Syrian refugee crisis began by chance when it collapsed into the life of his Arabic teacher: in tears, his teacher told him that two of her cousins had been killed in Syria. Motivated by a deep feeling of empathy, Jordan felt compelled to do something. This was the same feeling that had sent me to volunteer in that kitchen, and to his very presentation that morning. It is a feeling that can not only change the lives of individuals, but change the world.

Jordan went to Za’atari to learn about the conditions of the camp, and when he learned that the refugees there were living in tents--frozen at night by the cold and smothered by the heat during the day--with the help of students from NYC, he raised funds to deliver two insulated metal housing units to Syrian families. Although many others in the camp remained in tents, the lives of two families had been changed forever.

After Jordan’s presentation, I wanted to ask him how I could help, how I could turn that feeling of empathy into change, but as the school filed out into the halls, he was lost among the crowd. I sat down in the cafeteria, sorely wondering if I’d missed my only opportunity. I looked up from my tray, expecting to see a friend, but to my great surprise, Jordan sat down directly across from me. Until the bell rang inside the cafeteria of that high school in Rome, our conversation took us from Russia’s oligarchy to Jinping’s censorship, lamenting their blatant violations of human rights and their censorship of journalists, as democracies around the world crumbled. This rosy atmosphere was the beginning of a great friendship.

Seven months later, after weekly emails, intense planning, and visa cancellations, I arrived in the city of Amman, and was welcomed by Jordan and his friend Mohammad, a translator. From the airport to the hotel, stretching into the evening, a vibrant electricity permeated the air, born of the feeling that we now had the opportunity to make a difference.


From the window of the car, a sharp barbed wire fence that stretched across the horizon rose from the sand. I wondered what it must be like to live behind wire like this, enclosed. As our car edged closer, kicking up dust and sand, I noticed that a large ditch resembling a moat had been dug around the fence--yet another barrier to escape. Behind the fence, the camp finally came into focus, a sea of metal boxes spreading across the desert like a miniature city. White tents bearing the logos of numerous international NGOs were interspersed between the housing units: UNHCR, Amnesty International, Unicef--they were all here, and we were now joining them.

As our car rumbled to a stop in front of the gate, guards in military fatigues and combat boots approached, loosely holding machine guns. I wondered what it must be like to grow up surrounded by soldiers with guns. We thrust our clearances through the car window, documents that were both lengthy and normally unattainable. The guards waved us through. The gates swung open, and we drove in to the right, perched on the edge of this bustling, gargantuan city. I recognized the immense responsibility that I possessed in this moment to share what I had seen and set these images free from behind the metal gates in the desert between Syria and Amman out into the world.

I stepped out of the car into a makeshift parking lot, noticing only four other cars. The lack of other volunteers was discouraging, but unsurprising, given that even large organizations like the UNHCR could only send 72 people. I saw no one else with a camera draped around their neck, clutching a notebook and pencil, and wondered where the camera crews were. In a world of sensationalism and constant ‘breaking news,’ the stories of these refugees were not being told, but forgotten by the world and the governments that have the ability to lift these people out of this cage.

I looked behind us, back toward the metal gates, and saw miles and miles of desert, leading to mountains and gray sky. Between the mountains lay the lone highway that had brought us here, the only road connecting the camp to the outside world, winding through the desert to Amman. Syria was visible to the right, only 10 kilometres beyond the mountains. The location of this camp, in many senses, epitomizes the notion of being stuck “between a rock and a hard place,” as the refugees are unwelcome in Amman and unable to return to Syria. This geographic isolation not only reinforces the feeling of being trapped, but also contributes to the lack of public discourse regarding the camp.

As I stood on that strip of sand looking into this makeshift city, I was struck by the quiet. Life had stopped. It was as if the world was at a standstill. For the nearly 80,000 Syrians languishing in the camp, not able to return home to Syria nor enter the European fortress, their lives have stopped. According to the UNHCR, less than 20% of the refugees in the camp have work permits, as the Jordanian government has created barriers for refugees hoping to enter the workforce. Only in 2017, after nearly six years of waiting in the camp, did the Jordanian government slightly relax work permit restrictions to allow Syrian refugees to apply for jobs in certain sectors. Between the housing units in the sand, I spoke to a refugee who told me that he spent the majority of his time in his housing unit, playing with his children.

This sense of powerlessness, of being thrust away from the rhythm of life, also applies to Syrian children. In Za’atari, only 51% of children attend school. As we drove through the camp, I glimpsed children playing soccer with tin cans, adults sitting on stoops, the sense of life at a standstill on full display. Only one out of the many children I saw walking held papers.

We got back into the car for a short drive to the Syrian American Medical Society’s clinic, one of the few health care centres in the camp. We drove around the edge, between the desert and the unending fencing and the sea of metal boxes. It felt like we were bending around the curve of a planet.

When we arrived at the clinic, a small white rectangle amidst the metal boxes, I was struck by the sheer number of families waiting inside. The clinic’s waiting room was so full families had to spread out on the floor outside the doctor’s office. Parents sat with arms protectively wrapped around their children. Children looked around fearfully, wide-eyed, unsure of what to expect from the doctor.

I spent more than two hours interviewing families in those hallways, and throughout that time, only a few families and their children were ushered from the hallway into the doctor’s office. When I asked a doctor why they had to wait so long, he told me it was because the clinic could not afford to hire more doctors. For a camp holding nearly 80,000 people, according to the UNHCR only 58 clinicians work full time, aided by roughly 150 volunteers. I could see how stretched they were and the impact it was having on the many injured and sick children who had to wait.

On the way out, I glanced into empty room after empty room, the paper covering each bed untouched. Evidently, the clinic was big enough to care for many more families, but because they couldn’t afford to pay more doctors, the rooms remained empty, and the families continued to wait.

New York

Somewhere along the streets of Rome on the way to the kitchen, or driving between the dunes that slope toward Za’atari, a collection of necessary lessons began to form in my mind for those who have not had the opportunity to interact with refugees. First, the alt-right rhetoric that we are constantly drowned in by populist leaders, painting refugees as criminals, is completely false. Every Sunday in Rome this myth was dispelled before my eyes by the immense warmth and kindness of the Syrian people. And in Za’atari and Amman, the Syrian families I was lucky enough to meet insisted on sharing their food with me even though they had so little. These experiences not only affirm the humanity and generosity of a people that hateful rhetoric has demonized and dehumanized, but also illustrate the contributions that refugees make to societies. All of this may seem obvious to someone who recognizes how illogical it is to generalize and demonize an entire people that you have never met, but it is still important to emphasize, considering the polarizing and misinformative political climate we live in.

Second, in a world dominated by billionaires, oligarchs, great powers, and multinational corporations, this journey affirms that the individual truly can make a difference. Still in his 20s, Jordan found his way to Za’atari and changed the lives of countless people. At 17, I managed to gain entry to the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, and am using my time and resources to shed light on all that I have seen. The funds that I raised also supported the medical care and education of hundreds of Syrian refugees in both Za’atari and Amman. If two young people can begin to push back against the tides of hatred, illuminate our common humanity, and begin to chip away at a crisis that appears insurmountable, imagine what three others can do, or four, or an entire community of change makers. In a world rife with hatred, misinformation and inequality, the potential for dissent and change is still immense, and the ripple effects of these actions are unknowable.

Finally, it is important to note that the desire to make a difference begins with empathy. I would not have found my way to the kitchen in Rome without it. I would not have met Jordan and embarked upon this trip without it. I would never have learned the stories of the refugees I spoke to without it. And there is no hope for a better future without it. Empathy may be the magic that propels the breathing spirit of humanitarianism, but it can also be applied to our current political climate.

In the United States, as President Biden takes office, the country aflame with partisan tensions, the ability to empathize will be critical in finding a path forward. If we are going to restore civility to the United States and close the chasm of partisanship dividing American households, we have to consistently practice empathy instead of giving in to the impulse of hatred. If we stand up to this challenge, we can turn empathy into action, and begin to build a world free of the ashes of hatred, neglect, and ignorance--one that takes care of us all.

Donate to the Syrian American Medical Society:

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Read more about my experience working in the kitchen in Rome: