Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Za'atari Camp

Each country has its own rhythm, its own set of internal rules.  In Jordan, for example, a car moving at a slower speed will move over about half a lane to let you pass.  I found this a charming show of courtesy.  More surprising still is that, in Jordan, this courtesy is extended to you by the oncoming car as well.  That is, if you happen to not pass in time with your car barreling down a road at 65 miles per hour, don’t fret, you can be assured that the other car--the one moving toward you at 65 miles an hour--will also scoot over, just enough so that you can drive right down the middle of the road, flanked by cars on either side. That’s right: Two lane highway, meet 3 cars passing each other. When it happened the first time I found I had stopped breathing for a second, but it didn’t seem to faze our driver, Raed.  He simply trusted that the car on the right would move over his half lane, and the car bearing down on us would move over the other half.  And they did.  It was a disconcerting game of chicken, and one that was only possible because the driver in question believed that those around him were naturally hospitable and worthy of trust. 

And that is Jordan in a nutshell.  Hospitable and trusting.

Raed is an example of this. He is one of the managers of the youth program at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and he has a natural wit.  He tells outrageous stories with a wry smile--the kind of smile that has you excited for a punchline even before it comes.  He tells us about a trip to Bali he is planning on taking.  My ASU traveling companion, Nick, mentions that he has friends in Bali that could give him some objective information about the city.  Raed cuts Nick off.

“I don’t need objective,” Raed says, “I’ve already bought the tickets.”

He laughs and then we laugh.  The trip has been like this—everyone we meet seems to be willing to joke with us in the kind of familiar way you don’t expect unless among friends.  And maybe that is another one of the cultural rules here in Jordan.  Strangers ARE friends.

Once at the Za’atari camp, Raed has to convince the security guards that we possess the proper documents. Afterward, we enter a city-sized expanse filled with thousands of colorful, hastily-constructed concrete structures, not much larger than tents. These constructions, called caravans, are where each family lives.  Some are a drab white, but many are painted.  Spongebob Squarepants has been painted on the entire side of one caravan, and an Arabic phrase has been gracefully painted on another.  This kind of incongruity I see throughout the camp.  Two women are dressed in traditional full-length hijabs, for example, but the man behind them is wearing a Golden State Warriors t-shirt.  A man in a robe encourages a donkey to pull a cart, yet right past him are young boys with smartphones huddled near a fence looking for better cell reception.   A little further down the road and on my right I see a shoeless kid laughing and rolling a tire, but on my left, I spot a vast number of solar-powered panels. We learn that while most of the roads are dirt, the camp has been electric for the last nine months.

This constant juxtaposition is jarring and yet beautiful, and I am taken back by the energy of the place.  The market, which we see later in the day, is a perfect example of that energy.  It is a tightly-packed street of stores selling fruits, clothes, and housewares. Bikes, pedestrians, and donkeys weave in and out, as vendors stand passively by their storefronts smoking cigarettes.  We are told that the market is illegal, but the kind of illegal that has officials looking the other way.    

When we reach the school, we are greeted by a brightly colored multifarious construction.  There are a number of classroom buildings, each painted brightly, wherein classes are conducted for tailoring, a/c repair, hair cutting, plumbing, and electricity.  Our classroom, the one for learning English, has two rows of computers, and when we walk in, we are met with broad smiles.  Some students recognize me from the online videos and speak in hushed whispers. Later I am afforded a translation of their comments.  The students have decided I am more handsome in person than online.  I admit I am pleased.

A set of meetings with teachers, students, and administrators follow.  Mohammed and Khaled, the two teachers, tell us that students are excited and willing to learn.  Later, students tell us that they are grateful for the privilege to take classes online.  With administrators (Raed, Dima, and Ghaida) we discuss ways to expand our relationship and better meet the needs of the students.  After these meetings we go to lunch at a small restaurant inside the camp.  Ghaida pays for our lunch, and I notice she does it with her own money. 

As we sit down waiting for our food (chicken shwarama and fries for me), Dima and Ghaida, tell us about the camp.  Dima, a former badminton player for the Jordanian national team, has an economical style of speaking, and freely shares what feels like insider information. She tells of how a certain sense of entitlement has come over some camp members, a result she believes can be traced back to the job opportunities inside the camp.  Employment offers for full-time work, she explains, are often turned down because part-time work inside the camp is easier, giving the young refugees the free time and disposable income they want.  Ghaida gives us even bigger secrets.  She asserts that sex trafficking was once common in the camp, as certain parents were willing to rent out their daughters to unsavory men.  That practice has since been stopped, but Ghaida mentions matter-of-factly that problems with girls have continued.  One of her primary goals, as she sees it, is to give these girls more choices, choices that will help them feel less pressure to marry young (often at 15 or 16 years old). 

Overall, the life and movement of the camp is vibrant.  Teenage girls walk together conspiratorially, heads covered, but mouths moving.  Za’atari children explore, finding toys among rubbish, and toddlers pop out of caravan doors as busy mothers grab them back inside.   There are 12 districts, which strikes me as reminiscent of the book The Hunger Games, but the analogy doesn’t extend much beyond that.  In The Hunger Games, districts were divided and distinct, whereas the districts we see here are interconnected, and blend together harmoniously, albeit with a touch of unevenness.
That stated, the uneven touches I find give each district originality and identity.  For example, our school, located in District 10, displays two broken down cars right outside one of the main buildings.  The cars themselves would not be of much interest, except that residents have decided to re-purpose them. The cars are painted in wild colors, and have pots, pans, mufflers, oscillating fans, and other random scraps glued to them.  A set of drum sticks placed in one of the pots makes the re-purposing clear.  The cars now serve as a giant refugee camp drum set, and anyone who wishes to beat on this scrapheap musical instrument is invited to pound away at his or her heart’s content. 

This giant drum set, a result of unlikely circumstances, strikes me as the perfect symbol of the refugees themselves. 

Let me explain.  When thinking of these refugees, I am reminded of a particular phrase in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.  King Jr., speaking in that pulsing preacher style that is so affecting, directs this sentence to victims of violence when he declares, “You have been the veterans of creative suffering.”  That phrase, creative suffering, always gives me pause. What did King Jr., mean by creative suffering? The phrase has long been ambiguous and confusing to me.  To start with, who is creative anyway…the victimizers or the victims?  If it is the victimizers, then perhaps the phrase means that victimizers are innovative, creative providers of suffering, or put slightly differently, victimizers bring about unique and creative ways to make others suffer.  I consider this possible meaning, and I see it in this camp.  Not only have victims lost homes, they have lost family, jobs, and dignity.  I am told that a man with a PhD in engineering is now fixing air conditioning units. Man.  This isn’t just suffering, it is creative suffering.

But I am not satisfied completely with this interpretation.  So I consider the second.  What if the phrase “creative suffering” refers to the victims themselves?  In other words, victimizers aren’t the ones that are creative, but rather, the victims are.  In this case, suffering has somehow turned the victims into agents of creation.  I look around the camp one more time and see the murals painted on buildings, the children playing with plastic lids instead of Frisbees, and timing belts instead of hula hoops.  And here I see yet another truth as I examine the phrase creative suffering.  While peering around the camp I see creativity rising everywhere. 

And it is in this second interpretation of creative suffering that I realize that the two cars are the perfect symbol of the refugees themselves.  Two Skittle colored cars loom out against the beige backdrop of the desert landscape, reminding me how refugees, in the midst of their suffering, transform misfortune into music, and drab despair into brilliant color.   

A Mural

Khaled, Me, Nick, and Mohammad

Donkey Power

Mural Up Close

Drum Set


  1. Dr.Dixon,

    I really had to write! This is so awesome! I can't believe you actually went to the Zaatari camp. This is one of my dream and one of the reason why I am taking the Teach English Now course.

    Prior starting your course, I was a stay at home mom with no teaching degree. I always had a dream to teach refugees

    After I started your course, I asked the multicultural center in our city if I could volunteer in the classes. They have around 250 students.
    I am now teaching there. Most of my students are Syrian refugees and many of them are from the Zaatari camp. Last week, my manager approached me and asked if other teachers could come in my class to learn from me.
    I was so honored and happy. I know it's because of your course. I've learned so much from it.
    I am in the process of choosing where I will be doing my Capstone project. I will probably do it this summer.

    Thanks again and have a safe trip!

    Nancy Biddington

    1. Nancy,you are such an amazing person!You took advantage of the course and do your own part by contributing so much and you set an example to all of us!Thanks for inspiring!Also thanks to the amazing people from ASU who inspire and give us opportunities to develop!I am so proud to be part of the team!

    2. Nancy,you are such an amazing person!You took advantage of the course and do your own part by contributing so much and you set an example to all of us!Thanks for inspiring!Also thanks to the amazing people from ASU who inspire and give us opportunities to develop!I am so proud to be part of the team!

  2. Hi Shane. Great post! I was amazed at your comments on creativity rising up in the camp. I am doing the training in Saudi right now and we are talking about how to integrate #criticalcreativity into the curriculum. One concept we talk about is enabling constraints. These are limitations or restrictions that encourage creativity. As I read your post, I saw the suffering of the refugees as an enabling constraint that allowed them to be so creative in ways to find solace and peace among their hard circumstances. Thank you for the wonderful example.

  3. Dr Shane,as long as there are people like you ,there is still hope in this world!!!Thank you for sharing this amazing description!And for the positivity you always share...

  4. Dr Shane,as long as there are people like you ,there is still hope in this world!!!Thank you for sharing this amazing description!And for the positivity you always share...

  5. Absolutely inspiring, Shane! Thank you for sharing.

  6. This was really insightful . What an experience