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tent in Jordan

Life on the border: Struggling to survive in Jordan

Stanford's Laila Soudi is documenting her travels among Syrian refugees in the Middle East, where she is developing relationships to make a difference.

My first day in Jordan, a week ago, I saw a young boy, 12 years old, rummaging through the trash in the middle of a major highway in Amman, the capital. I approached him slowly, recognizing that he seemed afraid, reluctant to look at me.

“Hi. How are you? My name is Laila.”

I paused to gauge his response. The young boy looked up at me and slowly took his hands out of the trash and put them over his head, seemingly surrendering.

“You are safe. You are OK. I will not hurt you," I said. "You can put your hands down. What is your name?”

I took a seat next to the trash bin, hoping to demonstrate to the boy that I was not a threat. A minute later, he puts his hands down and sat next to me.

“My name is Ahmad. I’m sorry I reacted that way. It was my first instinct. I thought you were going to hurt me," he said, explaining that he had seen family members murdered in Syria. "Now I think everyone will hurt me, too.”

When he felt comfortable with me after a few minutes, he shared his story. Ahmad does not attend school — he last went when he was 6 years old. He does not know how to read or write.

After seeking refuge in Amman a few years ago, he started working. His day, starting at 5 a.m. and going until midnight, consists of rummaging through trash bins across the city to collect plastic bottles for compensation. He makes, on average, $2 a day. His family, comprising six siblings and his parents, lives in a makeshift tent with inadequate access to food. He does not remember the last time he had substantial protein, as he’s been consuming solely bread, yogurt, and cucumber.

Ahmad is one story of the 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, of whom at least half are children and most of whom have incredible tenacity and resilience after witnessing some of the worst possible atrocities committed to mankind.

Only 66 miles away (the distance I travel from my apartment in San Francisco to Stanford’s campus and back every day) lies Dara’a, Syria, where a major offensive over the last couple weeks has displaced hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Fleeing horrific shelling, residents in Dara’a sought refuge in Jordan but were met with closed borders. The government of Jordan said it was unable to accept more refugees. Those who fled remain largely on the border of this country, in makeshift tents, unable to move in either direction.

As I go to sleep safely tonight, painfully aware of the infinite privileges that allow me to do so, I think of Ahmad. I think of all the other children inside Jordan and those stuck on the various borders of this country. I think about what we owe these children, what our role as a university is, and where our responsibilities as humans lie to ensure we provide a better future for them.

Laila Soudi is the project lead for the Stanford Refugee Research Project. Originally from Syria, Laila has been working with refugee populations across Europe and the Middle East. This piece is part of a series called "Life on the border" on her trip to the Jordan-Syria and Lebanon-Syria borders.

Photo courtesy of Laila Soudi

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