Graduate students spend spring break with Syrian refugees

Media Credit: Photo Courtesy of Yomna Sarhan

Yomna Sarhan, a first-year graduate student of public policy at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, spent her spring break in Jordan as part of a conflict resolution course.

While some students partied in Cancun or spent their spring breaks at home, two graduate students sat with young Syrian refugees in their makeshift schools and experienced their new lives in Jordan firsthand.

Yomna Sarhan, a first-year graduate student of public policy at the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, and Graham Vickowski, a second-year graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs, joined a group of students from 28 universities to spend their spring break in Jordan. The group took the service-learning trip as part of a conflict analysis management and resolution class through George Mason University.

The trip comes during a nearly yearlong international focus on the refugee crisis. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, 5 million refugees have fled to countries like Jordan, Turkey and Greece, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The students stayed in Amman, Jordan’s capital, and traveled to cities with high numbers of Syrian refugees like Irbid, a city near the Syrian border. The group visited community centers for women and children, schools for refugees, hospitals and settlement camps. During the visits, they talked to refugees and met with activists and humanitarian workers.

Sarhan, who attended Georgetown University as an undergraduate, has been following the Syrian refugee crisis extensively, and wanted the opportunity to work on the ground in Jordan.

“I can’t just sit behind my computer screen, go on Facebook and hear what this person is saying,” Sarhan said. “This person has never been to Jordan. This person has never met a Syrian refugee.”

Vickowski, who went to Northern Arizona University as an undergraduate, said the program was a “50–50 mix” of lectures and meetings with “various practitioners and experts.”

The group also spent time volunteering with a Canadian-Jordanian nonprofit called Project Amal ou Salam, which means “hope and peace” in Arabic. The organization sponsors schools, hosts workshops and teaches refugee children about unity and trust, according to its website. Amal ou Salam also uses team-building activities to help children cope with trauma – the graduate students spent time with them singing, sharing snacks and painting.

“In one of the schools for the disabled refugee children, we eventually broke the ice with them, and most of us ended with paint on our faces with kids going crazy. I looked like the Hulk,” Vickowski said.

So far the students have raised about $7,300 for Syrian refugee children through a Kickstarter campaign. The funds will go to Project Amal ou Salam’s education programs, which help integrate refugee children into the Jordanian school system.

“Many Syrian children have been out of school for nearly three years, and they are not allowed to start in the Jordanian public school system because they have missed that schooling,” Sarhan said. “They need to make up for their schooling.”

The students also learned more about the plight of refugees – many face discrimination and cannot afford food or basic necessities in their new countries. About 20 percent of Syrian refugees live in refugee camps, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

“There is a lot that you see in the news nowadays which makes the refugees seem less human,” Vickowski said.

Vickowski said that during a visit to a school in Irbid, the children welcomed the graduate students with skits and songs, and one young girl sang a song about her view of the future.

“Then one of them started crying during the song, and then we all cried,” Vickowski said. “They miss home.”

Sarhan said the trip helped her better understand what the refugees are experiencing.

“I wondered why aren’t we listening to the refugees, why aren’t we listening to the people on the ground?” Sarhan said. “There is no voice, no space for them to share their opinions. All we know is what we have on the news and what people tell us.”

Sarhan said she now wants to be more involved with the small number of Syrians in D.C., raise funds for the refugees and share her experiences.

“These are very ambitious and smart people. Their circumstances made them that way,” Sarhan said. “They are not their circumstances.”

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