Jordan Hattar and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By H.D. Wright


Jordan Hattar is a refugee activist and humanitarian, and someone I’m lucky to call a close friend. Jordan’s refugee activism began in 2012 after learning about the plight of the Syrian people from his Arabic professor. As a result of this interaction, Jordan was immediately inspired and compelled to make a difference.


Jordan spent the fall of 2012 reporting as a freelance journalist and delivering humanitarian aid to the Syrian refugees in Zaatari Refugee Camp.​ It was through his continued interactions with the refugees at this time that Jordan learned of the refugees’ desperate need for better housing. In order to help meet the need for adequate shelter, Jordan teamed up with Olivia Wong, a fellow CGIU commitment maker, to fundraise and deliver two prefabricated housing units, called caravans, to the Zaatari Refugee Camp in the summer of 2013. Student groups in New York heard about Olivia and Jordan’s work, and raised enough money to purchase two metal housing units, also known as caravans, which Jordan delivered in November of 2014.


Since the delivery of the caravans, Jordan received a Master's degree in International Relations & Politics from the University of Cambridge in 2016. Upon receiving his degree, Jordan began an internship in the White House with First Lady Michelle Obama's Reach Higher initiative. Most recently, Jordan has concentrated on directing his nonprofit Help4Refugees and has followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Carl Wilkens, speaking full-time in schools and universities around the world.


On the morning of our final day of conducting interviews and volunteering in the Za'atari refugee camp this Christmas break, Jordan and I sat down to discuss the impact he’s had on the Syrian refugee crisis, and some of the important lessons he’s learned along the way.


HDW: I know that you were originally motivated to become involved in the Syrian refugee crisis because of an Arabic professor. What about what the teacher told you made you decide to get involved in the crisis?


Jordan: Well, she would always talk about what was going on in Syria at the beginning of class and we would always ask her questions so we would have less time for the Arabic lesson, because it was an hour and fifty minute class. But the more I learned of her story, I thought, how could I not help? I learned about her relatives that were killed. I saw her own sorrow and I thought I can do something about this. I've always believed that if you set your heart on something you can find a way to make a difference, and I believe in the ability to make a difference. You don't always know how to start, but you try. In South Sudan I learned that maybe mosquito nets and books weren't the most important things, but you try and you learn, and that's the only way. There's one thing that I like to think about: just because you can't do everything doesn’t mean you can't do something. Just because you can't deliver caravans to the whole refugee camp doesn’t mean you don't start somewhere and raise enough money for two caravans. It may seem like just a drop in the ocean but I believe in the ripple effects. Just as the flu is contagious, I also believe that compassion and empathy are too. It kind of seeps into our veins like it’s magic. I really believe that.


HDW: How do you know that your actions are having an impact, because there's a difference between tangible results like the caravans and the interactions that you have on a daily basis. So how do you know how those different things that you're involved in are manifesting?


Jordan: The first thing that I think I can control is my intention. I start with: am I doing this for the right reason? Am I using people as ends, not means? That's an important thing for me. We can't use people to get somewhere, they are the end goal. Other than that it's just listening. It's finding out what the biggest needs are according to the people, not according to us. If we listen, we’ll hear what they really need, and that's why I decided to deliver the caravans, because enough Syrian refugees said that they needed them. When you see people sitting in all these tents and people are talking about the winter and they explain how their lives have been affected by living in tents, and they say to you we need caravans, it's a no-brainer. Our greatest passion intersects with the world's greatest needs in different places. And the needs change, they’re not the same for your whole life. I kept fundraising for caravans, and I realized that wasn't what was needed anymore.


HDW: And that’s why listening is so important, like you said. You really have to be in constant communication.


Jordan: Yeah, you're forging friendships with people on the ground. It's not necessarily a formal means of emailing. You're actually in touch with people who can update you verbally on the situation. The power of investing in people is infinite. They to me are the real resource. The people in Jordan are just so warm, and as we saw yesterday with Shaza’s family, they will share with you all they have.


HDW: I have a couple questions about Zaatari. I know you originally were reporting as a freelance journalist there. I was wondering when you first entered Zaatari, what was your first impression, and how has that changed as the camp has evolved over time?


Jordan: My first thoughts are of meeting a woman who was twenty-seven, which is interesting because that's how old I am now, and she told me how she had lost her whole family except for two sisters. Her optimism and her resilience inspired me so much. It didn't make sense to me how she had so much optimism when most of her family had been killed, and it made me think of something a Nuremberg prosecutor had said about how he copes with everything. He said, basically, if you're crying on the inside, you better be laughing on the outside, or you'll drown in tears. That's my only explanation for how she copes. I felt like there were so many stories to be told and that they weren't being told to the world. One of the reasons I went, besides my Arabic teacher, was from sitting down with my dad after a long weekend and watching NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. We used to love watching him together, and they would just show the fighting. They explained the Syrian conflict in only a two minute snippet. I remember thinking, there's more to this, because I was also hearing stories from my Arabic teacher. I also watched a documentary called The Reporter, and that really inspired me. The duty that we have as journalists is to share with the world what's going on. I remember walking to class in college, surrounded by people, and thinking: I need to do something.


HDW: We’ve discussed how the camp has changed over time, but how do you think it's changed you? Learning so many stories and interacting with so many people, and going there day after day, having all those experiences.


Jordan: The first thing that comes to mind is wanting to protect the Syrian refugees from reliving their trauma, while also being able to learn their stories. It's a delicate balance of making sure that they are comfortable sharing, and not wanting to replay their drama just for the sake of hearing their story. It's a very delicate thing because I really do think we need stories to understand what's going on, but at what cost? So there’s a fine line between learning people's stories to inspire others to action and protecting them, because the trauma that they have gone through is really intense.


HDW: It's really difficult to strike that delicate balance because you're trying to learn their story, but you don't want them to have to relive the pain. Interacting with them on a daily basis, would you say the majority of the time is trying to learn their stories, or something else?


Jordan: The majority of the time, we're just friends sitting there talking, catching up, or playing games, you know. We're friends talking about what's new in life, just like with any friend that you would sit with. When I'm there by myself, I very rarely engage in stories. They’ve really changed me. As empathy is such a strong emotion, if you tap into it, it can really be intense. I forgot for a second that I wasn't Syrian because I've been spending so much time with them. You can really embrace a culture and a people. You can feel so a part of something.


HDW: Being around these kinds of difficult stories and hearing about how they left Syria and the war, that must be incredibly difficult for them, obviously, but also for you, when you're in these kinds of environments, hearing these kinds of impactful stories all the time. Carl talked about having to deal with pain, so I’m wondering how you deal with it too. Even after the dinner that we had yesterday, it can be overwhelming, even though it's secondary.


Jordan: I take time to think and go on walks. I'm a big advocate for those things. It really helps me clear my mind. Every activist has their own thing; Carl journals a lot, I walk a lot, and you read and write a lot. Finding outlets is important because this stuff is real. It's real suffering, real pain, and real death that some of these families have faced. What we were filming is real. I don't know what could be more real. Human life is precious, and I want to make sure that people stay alive instead of being killed so they can have the opportunity to have a childhood, have birthday parties instead of thinking about the plane flying overhead and the bombs falling down. There’s a quote I heard once: our lives lose meaning when we hear that other people around the world are suffering. Anybody's life can be taken so quickly, but for some it's so much more dangerous. When I was in South Sudan, I heard that one in seven children don't make it to their fifth birthday. That was tough to hear. I didn't see it first-hand, but you realize how vulnerable groups of people are, and that shouldn't be the case. Nobody should be that vulnerable.


HDW: That quote reminds me of another one that we were talking about the other day: injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It's a very similar idea. You've already talked about fundraising for caravans, and throughout this trip we've been thinking quite deeply about how to allocate the funding that we've worked hard to fundraise to different places. Bashar’s family talked about the hierarchy of needs, how it's better to help people that are in even more difficult situations because in this crisis, everyone is suffering. Someone is always suffering more, so how do you decide how to allocate the funding that you’ve raised?


Jordan: Kind of like that quote earlier, just because you can't do everything, doesn't mean you can't do something. Start somewhere. We're human, we're going to make mistakes, but we try our best. We try not to make promises about funding to certain people. Our words are very important. I just try to be an active listener when people are sharing their story. That's the best thing we can do to learn even more. Listening and staying in touch, which is something you will do after this trip, is incredibly important. You're not there just to take their story, but for something much larger: for a lifelong friendship. For a deep understanding. Live life through their eyes. Yes, donations will help now and in the future, but I like what your dad said about every conversation being only the tip of the iceberg. Think about inviting these people to your wedding one day. When I think of Syrian refugees, I think of them as my friends and family first.


HDW: That perception works against everything that you see in the media, because they are labeled as only refugees. But when you actually learn their stories and speak their language like we do, the humanity that's been so obscured by the media is revealed.


Jordan: Moving from sympathy to empathy is important. Not feeling sorry for them. It's just chance that it happened to them and not us, and that was a big realization that shocked me; seeing part of my sister in one of the Syrian refugees makes you realize how it could have been us.


HDW: Another thing that you've done that has naturally been impactful for me is your speaking tour. I was wondering what prompted you to decide to go on a speaking tour in the first place?


Jordan: Carl Wilkens, whom you have spoken to, came to my school and inspired me and my classmates before I went to South Sudan. I went on a speaking tour with Carl at eighteen and I got to see how much of a difference one can make with persistence, what you showed by staying in touch with me and emailing me for months. Persistence is something I really believe in. It's not always going to work out in your favor, but if you really believe in something and keep at it, you can do it.


I got a text after the refugee ban in 2017 from someone that I hadn’t heard from in a while saying, “What you do now is more important than ever before. Don't stop what you're doing.” I realized why they were messaging me because the refugee work I have been doing for the past five years has been effectively countering the narrative that people are seeing in the news. But I think stories really inspire a lot of action-- to you, for example. I think you can be an even bigger advocate than me. I mean you already are-- look at your notepad--it's incredible. Part of me feels like I'm passing the torch. The reason I got involved in this in the first place is that this is bigger than me. It's about getting other people aware of what's going on because once you know, once you’ve seen how people are suffering, you can't not do something. We all have a candle, and together we're lighting up the world shining a light on what's going on. I picture a huge dining hall, the world in darkness, and we as activists are trying to light up as many candles as we can so everyone can see and understand each other. Breaking down misperceptions.


HDW: Carl [Wilkens] would be very proud of that metaphor. Throughout the many speaking tours you’ve been on, with him, have there been any moments that really stuck with you in different places around the world?


Jordan: Four things come to mind. The first one is the fact that you're here. The fact that a conversation can turn into a whole trip. The fact that you took the initiative really inspires me and shows me that your message can connect with people. I was also so inspired by this one group of students in England that fundraised over $7,000 in one evening. All the school visits are inspiring but sometimes something special energizes you. At a Model U.N. conference here in Russia, for example, a young girl gave me the money that she saved up. But you don't have to be a citizen of the United States to make an impact in the world. You can be from anywhere. President Obama told his intern class, becoming the CEO of Apple, or any important company, requires so many things to fall in your favor. It really requires a lot of luck. But making a difference in this world does not. Making a difference to me comes of intentional acts. We always have the choice to be kind or not or to open the door for somebody. Carl would always open the passenger door for me when we were on the speaking tour together, and he showed me that service isn't just about traveling to different countries and fundraising. Service is daily life; how you treat somebody when you're in a rush, which touches people's lives.


HDW: I've been thinking about the significance of this trip as a whole. Many months ago in Rome, I got involved in the Syrian refugee crisis with you because of your visit to my school and some studying I did at Yale over the summer. After corresponding and planning this trip, we’ve done so much. We’ve been incredibly busy for the past few days, so we haven’t had much time to reflect, so what are some takeaways we can think about from the experiences we’ve had so far traveling from camp to camp?


Jordan: I'm inspired by your Skype call with Carl, how engaged you are. You're not just here to look at me, you're here to learn and find out the situation and figure out what role you can play and where you come in to make a difference. And you're not forcing your way in and saying I'm going to make a difference a certain way. You're watching and listening and learning, and you're dedicated. Your whole family is dedicated. You guys could have easily taken a morning or an afternoon off, but you've been all in every single day. That inspires me, seeing how much you guys really care. To see how much people believe in this keeps me going. It keeps me optimistic. I think you have to be a little naive to change the world. I've always thought that. It's inspiring to see how even for somebody that's worked on Wall Street, your dad, you can make career changes and start doing humanitarian work with an expertise in business. It shows that no matter who you are, you can come to understand the refugee crisis. Your dad is a business leader and he's doing it.


HDW: Everyday we’re inspired by you. We're here because of you. Last question: you probably know what it is, as you always ask people this. What are your dreams?


Jordan: I want to live a life of service. One imagines a certain profession they’d like to pursue, but I like to structure my dreams around a certain impact. I want to inspire people as a leader and move the world in a more moral direction because I have the on-the-ground experience. If you want to work on policy you have to keep the experiences of individuals in mind to shape that policy. You can't just read briefs and intelligence reports without also having an ear to the ground. It should be a combination of those two things. Making a decision based off of what real people on the ground are saying helps us realize what's at stake. I'm excited about the future, where it takes us, and I'd love to work together again. I want to continue to make a difference and continue to learn how better to make a difference not just in Syria, but to be a voice for all of those that are suffering.