By Rifat Odeh Kassis
(article provided courtesy of Lutheran World Federation)
Everyone in Alshoy knew that Hiba would become a great pediatrician someday.
Alshoy is a village located on the Horan plain, in southern Syria, under the administration of the Daraa governorate. Because of its fertile soil it is also called “the village of wheat”. The place is also known for its archaeological and historical sites, with ruins from Roman, Byzantine, and Ghassanid times, ancient buildings, wells and tombs.
Like in many other Syrian towns, the war ruthlessly destroyed the villages and their cultural heritage in that governorate. Many people lost their lives, and many civilians left their villages and fled as refugees to neighboring countries. Hiba’s family—her parents, five siblings, and Hiba herself—sought refuge in Jordan in November 2012. Hiba, the eldest child, was 12-years-old at the time.
An exceptionally clever girl, she had always worked hard at school. When her family left Syria, she was in the 7th grade and had already decided to study medicine: she wanted to become a pediatrician. Her siblings say it was the war and suffering around them which caused this dream to bloom in her. As it began to grow, war broke out; when it destroyed her village, her dreams were also destroyed. Overnight, Hiba was uprooted from her home and reached Jordan with her dreams uprooted, too.
At the Za’atari refugee camp, she joined what the refugees call “the Bahraini School”. A month later she stopped attending classes. Hiba told me that she left school for some reasons to do with herself and others related to her father. She added, “The curriculum in the school, the way they teach here, is completely different than in Syria.” She looked at me and saw that I wasn’t entirely convinced. Then this strong little girl surprised me by bursting into tears, and speaking from the depths of her heart. “Is this a life? Is this a place where you can study, read, write, and think? I didn’t have proper clothes or shoes…we had no electricity. All my dreams evaporated as soon as I set foot in the camp. I was so sad and depressed.”
There was a long, terrible moment in which only her sobs could be heard. “It was only when I joined the Peace Oasis in the camp,” she said, referring to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) program at Za’atari for young people aged 14-24, “that I managed to pull myself together and decided to go back to school.”
The Peace Oasis program includes art and play therapy, sports, group counseling and vocational training. Activities are separated by gender in ways that respond to cultural norms and have been developed through consultation with young people living in the Za’atari camp. Donations from Canadian Lutherans have helped make this life-changing program possible.
Hiba, however, still is not going to school. “When I decided to go back, there was no more room for me. I was put on the waiting list…and I’m still waiting,” she says.
Hiba’s father phrases it in more socially dictated terms. “We didn’t have enough resources to send them to school,” he said. He also remarked about particular incidents, sexual harassment that some girls are subjected to, especially when they have to walk long distances to school.
Hiba’s father only allows her to attend the LWF Peace Oasis because she goes with other girls and LWF volunteers accompany them to ensure their safety. “If there could just be a minibus in the camp,” he told me, “people’s lives will change, especially girls’ lives, and they will be able to attend some of the many activities in the camp.”
Hiba told the LWF counselors that her biggest fear is being forced into early marriage. If that should happen, she told them, it would put an end to all her hopes. According to UNICEF, Syrian refugee girls are especially vulnerable to early marriages. While in 2013, every fourth girl was married early in 2014 the numbers rose to every third girl being subjected to the practice.
When I asked Hiba about her hopes and dreams for the future, she said, “I lost all my dreams, but I didn’t lose my faith in people. Being here in the Peace Oasis, surrounded by such lovely and friendly people, has made me feel happier. I still hope for a better future in a safe, secure, and united Syria. My personal dreams and my dreams for my country are finally becoming one.”
By Rifat Odeh Kassis, the LWF Country Representative for the program in Jordan. Donations from Canadian Lutherans have helped make the Peace Oasis possible.