The first vibe is “dreary, drab and dusty” as a guest enters the Zaatari refugee camp in the north of Jordan via the gate in the chain link fencing stretching 2 miles by 2 miles, enclosing 80,000 Syrian refugees. Then partially graveled streets, lined with trenches to catch rainwater (when it rains!), spiderwebs of electricity lines overhead (thankful for electricity!), rows of caravans (like house trailers) boxed in by little courtyards made of sheets of galvanized tin. Some tiny shops (most deserted nowadays) that once pushed second-hand bridal gowns (people get married in the camp, especially if they have been there for 12 years), bike and mobile phone repair, vegetables, that sort of thing.
And kids, everywhere. Playing games, running around, riding donkeys, waving “hello” to the guests in cars passing them by. Twenty thousand of them have been born here since the camp opened in 2011. It takes a careful driver to dodge the potholes and rapidly moving youngsters. The destination is the Questscope space in the camp, also within a chain link fence that shows visitors they are “inside” from “outside.”
Ah, but what a surprise awaits inside. One of our guests from Washington, DC exclaimed “They blasted me with joy!” Guests are greeted by volunteer adults (and of course the ubiquitous kids) with the widest of smiles. Whisked off to drink very, very strong tea, and then off to the various project sites in the Youth Center. First stop is the Art Gallery that showcases the paintings, drawings, mosaics, resin sculptures, sometimes origami creations and always the photographs of budding photojournalists whose works are marketed online.
We walk past the soccer field (we call it football) surrounded by 12-foot-high canvas walls so that girls can play the game in privacy. And they are GOOD. Our Dream Team won second place in a competition with girls’ teams from all around Jordan. (Boys play soccer, too, just at different times of the day.)
Then the music room, with a couple of violinists who learned the basics of how to play on YouTube. A room chock-full of guitars, “ouds” (a unique, traditional Arab kind of guitar), keyboards (cheaper than pianos and with more funky sound options!), recorders (look like a shepherd’s flute), and boundless energy. Blasts of joy!
Off to the sound studio. A room purpose-built for recording singers, playing instruments, and telling narrative stories in refugees’ own words. Full of top-of-the-line Apple computer hardware, mixers, and microphones with that foam stuff around the mic to get the sound “right.” And then to a full-size gym where the floor is being upgraded for basketball games.
Eventually, there is food. A long table of Arabic snacks. Hummus, falafel, little eggplants stuffed with walnuts, fava beans in a sauce to die for! More of that strong tea. And sweets, piles of little cakes, twists of fried dough in honey (a version of a donut), tiny tubs of chocolatey things in tablespoon-sized cups. Amazing.
But the most amazing things that happen are our guests themselves.
Our guests are the people (and their organizations) that have made this marvelous Center and all the smiles and guitars and mics possible through their generosity.
Everyone who has done something special, something unexpected, something awesome, wants an audience to show that something to. One of our recent guests was Ellie Goulding, a singer, performer, songwriter who cut the ribbon to officially launch the Dream Day-funded upgraded sound studio (with all those foam-covered mics). Imagine what it means to a group of young performers, lodged in that dreary, dusty refugee camp, to have someone like her listening, applauding, laughing with them. Why, she is a role model for what can be! And now there is space and equipment to start realizing what can be. She brought massive encouragement inside from far outside. Amazing!
Or the visitors from The District Church in Washington, DC. They contributed funding for some of the invisible parts of the very visible day’s activities. The mentoring program that ensures that every young person has a friend, a champion, to accompany them as they make sense of their lives inside that chain link fence. The trauma counseling program that intends to bring healing to each one and release them into a thriving life – way beyond just surviving the wretched conflict that took everything away from them when they were too young to know what was happening.
And poetry workshops. Catalyst Foundation contributed support to poetry slams, guided by a world-renown Syrian poet, Firas Suleiman, who took time from his responsibilities at the Center for the Humanities (Fifth Avenue, `NY) to cultivate the poetry muse in a group of refugee teens – whose poems have been published in a short volume entitled Forgotten Mailboxes (in Arabic with excellent English translation). Phenomenal.
Or the two photography guys from Lens-on-Life, experts in the ins-and-outs of turning out magic with pictures that are worth a thousand-and-one words. And creating income-generating potential because their images are sooo good. Recently “discovered” by the Canon company who is training them for Canon certification. And then the Playing for Change guests who “get” that music, the world-wide language of youth, can be the beginning of everything better – loving learning, figuring out small-business skills, being, in a word, creative agents in building their own futures.
Our guests bring joy from “outside” that connects with joy on the “inside!” Joy that reflects the commitment of Questscope to see refugee youth as awesome resources to develop and not problems to be solved.
And then there are the invisible guests. People who will likely never visit inside the camp confines. Who will never meet the youth whose lives do not have to be restricted by what happened to them in a conflict in which they are now facing the consequences.
The invisible guests are those of you who have generously donated to make all this magic possible.
One thing about guests in the Arab world. They are the ones that, for the short time they are with us, the world reorients to them with gracious overwhelming hospitality. A hospitality that I hope you can join with us in our feelings of gratitude for what you have accomplished, in a galaxy that is not too far away and is not a long time ago.
I’d like to offer you some of that strong tea.