Soles for Syrian Souls – An interview with Sara Obeidat
by Aanya F Niaz
While in Jordan this summer 2012, Sara was, like many Jordanians, facing the reality of chaos in Syria first-hand. Thousands of refugees have settled in Jordan to find shelter, leaving behind any sense of home they had in Syria. Here is an interview with Sara Obeidat and the campaign she lead “Soles for Syria” to help the lives of Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Sara Obeidat is a 22-year-old Jordanian dedicated to human rights. She grew up in Jordan and then moved to the US where she studied Foreign Affairs and History at the University of Virginia (UVA). She also focused on theatre. She was quite active in various student groups on campus as well as the arts. She has also worked in various places around the world including Lebanon, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and New York. Obeidat graduated from UVA in 2012 and went back to Jordan where she worked at the Syrian refugee camps and founded Soles for Syria, a drive dedicated to helping the Syrian refugees. She currently lives in New York.
If you could summarize the events that have taken place in Syria, how would you do so?
Syria is no exception to the Arab Spring, very few Arab countries are. Bashar Al Asad, and his father Hafez al Asad have ruled Syria under emergency law since 1963. When a country is ruled under emergency law for so long, one can only imagine the standard of human rights within that country, especially with respect to freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the right to have free and fair elections. It was therefore inevitable that the the Arab Spring would reach Syria, and it did. An uprising began in the Southern governorate of Daraa and was crushed immediately in a disturbingly brutal fashion. The regime showed how willing it was to attack its own citizens. Murders by the thousands and massacres that included children, torture, and thousands arbitrarily detained by the regime. The protests have not stopped since last March due to the regime’s brutal crackdown. Despite the fact that the government has tried to pass some reforms, the protests have not stopped due to the degree of violence the regime has adopted. The regime claims to be fighting terrorists. There has also been a denial of medical assistance to many of those who have been wounded. Refugees by the thousands have fled into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and other parts of the world. At this point I believe there is no turning back, the government has shown how far it is willing to go by expelling, killing, and torturing its own citizens- no legal reforms can change that.
What role is Jordan playing in alleviating some of the obstacles that the refugees are facing?
Jordan is a small country with limited resources, yet when it comes to refugees it has opened its doors to its Arab neighbors time and time again. Jordan does not only have Syrian refugees, it also has the highest percentage of Palestinian refugees and Iraqi refugees. As a country undergoing economic strain and considered to have one of the highest levels of water scarcity in the world, the government can only do so much. Many countries have set a limit for the amount of refugees they can take, but Jordan continues to receive refugees every day. Jordan has set up refugee camps for the Syrian refugees, whose number has risen to around 210,000 as of today and are expected to reach a quarter of a million by the end of October. It has set up the Zaatari camp which is not home to around 33,000 and is planning the opening of a new camp as well. Many Syrians have also been taken in by Jordanian families- some are related while others have no relation but have been able to form a brotherhood through a concept of Arab unity that has died out with our governments but lives within our people. The government has set up special organizations and is working with collaborating with UNHCR and other NGOs, but a government whose own citizens are starving can only do so much to help the refugees of a neighboring country. The tents in the refugee camp are expected to be converted into trailers by the end of the year, and the government has also set up medical aid within the camp, but the situation is still in dire need of emergency assistance.
What inspired you to establish your own cause and campaign?
Fortunately, the first task Save the Children gave the volunteers was to fill out a survey which assessed the needs of each tent. The first tent I went into had a three year old boy who was limping, his foot was wrapped in a plastic bag. When I asked the parents about the cause of this, they explained that the child had scratched his foot while playing in the sand, and the scratch eventually turned into an infection. When I asked the parents why the child did not have his shoes on, they explained that they did not have time to put his shoes on before running for their lives. Because this was the first family I met at the camp, the observation stayed at the back of my mind and I made it a point to notice who had their shoes on and who did not. After only a few hours at the camp anyone can notice that most of the camp is in fact barefoot. The sand in the camp is incredibly hot and the environment is rough and is basically a desert, making it very difficult to walk outside barefoot.many people would get burns on their feet, or get an infection because of a small cut from walking barefoot, and because there is little follow up for such minor injuries, their whole foot becomes infected eventually. A lot of people were also sharing a slipper between a family of 6 for instance which would limit mobility. Some women would need to wait to use the bathroom because they were waiting for their turn to use the communal slipper. There were children being cooped up in tents because their mothers could not let them leave the tent barefoot.
The work I had to do involved speaking to a lot of people, to a lot of the refugees, which was great because I got to know what they needed and what their problems were first hand. There’s nothing like understanding a problem from the very person going through it. I started coming back from the camp every day feeling quite depressed because I noticed that there were a lot of issues that could be easily solved (i.e., being barefoot). These are the frustrating issues- the ones that can be avoided through a simple solution and yet are unattended to causing a lot more problems throughout. Sometimes I would meet a child with a huge infection that could have easily been avoided by something as simple as rubbing alcohol, so I would go ahead and buy it and deliver it the next day- but this was an unsustainable approach tha caused me more frustration because I felt limited in my capacity to help anyone.
The project began as a small drive with a facebook page. We were surprised at the resposes and how much it grew. People in Jordan, particularly Amman really wanted to help. There were also may people outside of Jordan who wanted to help as well. We began involving the private schools, and partnered with 6 local schools in the country and one school in Qatar in order to collect donations from students. The results were remarkable, and sometimes overwhelming. The community responded very positively, and with only an effort of a month and a half we managed to collect six thousand pairs for Syrian refugees, and also allocated a separate portion (not including the 6000) for Jordanians in need as well. I think what made our project special was the quality control. The team was small, and the girls working with me were brilliant. We literally checked every shoe donated to us for quality, and would specifically make sure that our specifications were met. Closed shoes, good condition, fit for the desert and the rain, that was our criteria. In this project it wasn’t “good enough” to donate, we collected way over 6000 pairs, but we only chose 6000 because of the quality of the shoes. We also handpicked each shoe bought from the funds we collected and ensured they were the right quality.
Soles for Syria:
What did your cause accomplish?
Besides the shoes collected, I think we raised a huge awareness about the camp in itself. Amman is a great place with so many generous people who are willing to help, but sometimes people forget that they have a responsibility. I think we served to many members of society that there is something expected of them to do. We got the schools involved which reached a huge amount of people, and we raised awareness about the camp. So many people called me to ask me for NGOs they could volunteer for in order to help the camp. I think we also showed people that you do not have to be affiliated with an NGO to make a difference- the initiative was run by girls who had just graduated from university or were still at school. I think we also set a standard to what qualifies as a good donation and what will be used and what you cannot donate. Many people have the conception that a donation means giving away your trash- but a donation requires some form of sacrifice, something that you can continue to use and are willing to give to someone else- that’s how you make it count.
Inside the Refugee Camps:
Could you share some of the life-stories you heard/shared in the refugee camps?
There stories are too many, you hear so many every day that after a while its hard to believe that so many people go through something like this.
There are so many women who have fled Syria and have not heard from their husbands for over a month or two. They fled with their children and do not know wether or not their husbands and eldest sons are alive. One woman fled barefoot and in her nightgown and has not been able to aquire clothes since.
The resources are so scarce that there was a family of 12 (a mother and all her children) living on one bottle of water for 2 days.
The amount of people in the camp with physical and mental disabilities is surprising, these families have no way to aid these children, they need to carry them for long distances in order to help transport them to the so called bathrooms in the camp.
There was a family with four children, one with cerebral palsy, the other one was hearing impaired, and one was mentally disabled. These children do not belong in the camp.
What is the environment of the refugee camps like?
It is a desert, with incredibly hot and sands. The environment is rough and during the summer it is incredibly warm in the day and very cold at night, which is why a lot of the children get sick.
It is also a very dusty environment because of the amount of sand, and so many people with asthma suffer, and almost everyone is suffering from allergies and lung infections because they are breathing in so much dust.
The camp is huge and it is also very easy to get lost for a child. It’s a tough environment, especially for people who aren’t used to this terrain. The area round the camp where Jordanians live is also not much better, it is considered to be one of the poorest parts in Jordan.
When these refugees come in, what type of shelter are they provided?
They are provided with tents. Now they are slowly converting these tents into caravans in order to prepare for the rough winter conditions.
A Jordanian Perspective:
As a Jordanian citizen, what makes you feel close to this cause?
The issue of refugees is very close to my heart because as an Arab, and particularly as a Jordanian, I grew up hearing about the refugee situation time and time again. By the time I was born Jordan had a huge amount of Palestinian refugees, and I remember very specifically the US invasion of Iraq’s consequences as Iraqis came in to Jordan and I saw my country change. On a personal level, many of my friends are Palestinian and their own grandparents may have been refugees at a certain point, it’s an issue that makes it emotional for me because you can put a face to the situation. You can not be Arab and ignore the refugee issue, it’s a central part of many political discussions – and you definitely can not be Jordanian ignore the issue because whether or not you have compassion for them or share the same heritage as those refugees, their status affects Jordan’s status and its resources, which basically affects every citizen in our country.
I feel close to this cause because I spoke to people in the camp, their faces are in my mind and it is something personal for me. Being a refugee is not something that happens over night, these people were not poor, they were simple. They were not starving back in Syria, they had their lands that they farmed and their vegetables that they grew and ate. The are simple but not poor, and for them to get used to living in such circumstances.
What does the word “Save” mean to you?
My notion of the word “save” has actually changed a lot after this project. In almost every tent I walked into and sat down with the family, I was offered food. These people were starving, and with the few boxes of food they received every day from the WFP they would offer me biscuits, rice, or tea. Some would insist and not allow me to leave the tent until I had something to drink because “it is too hot outside and I should not get dehydrated.” You can not think of someone as “helpless” after that, you can only be humbled and slightly feel ashamed. These people do not need to be “Saved”- they need to be aided. When I spoke to the refugees many of them actually had great ideas and knew what they needed. When we talked about the problem of trash accumulation all over the camp, they offered to have each “Street” in the camp (two rows of tents) responsible for its own trash collection, but they needed actual TRASH BINS (that’s where a good donation should come in). When I spoke to women about the uncleanliness of the bathrooms, the ladies said that all they would want are hygiene kits for them to clean the bathroom themselves. When I asked if they would be willing to take turns on a day to clean the bathroom almost all of them agreed. They need to be supported, they need to be aided, their circumstances need to be made better, you do not need to do it for THEM, you are not “saving” them.
How YOU can help:
How can we continue to aid the refugees?
By aiding SPECIFIC CAUSES. By not donating money simply to an NGO, but by paying attention to the specific programs they have and taking the time to invest in their donation. Money is great but sometimes the problem is not a lack of resources but rather a lack of proper distribution.