By Caroline Brennan
Along the Syrian border, conversations with refugees from Jordan to Lebanon to Turkey strike a recurring theme: a yearning for the world to see Syrians as they know themselves to be—a hospitable, warm and civilized culture.
The quest by Syrian refugees to hold onto their identity is tangible. You see it in the small grass and rock arrangement that is placed as a centerpiece on the mud floor of a desolate tent. You see it in the care of a mother bathing her daughter each day with a bucket and cloth to keep her clean in the dusty refugee camp, far from the nice home they enjoyed just 10 months ago.
And you see it in the Syrians who are refugees themselves, but who are helping other refugees because “it is part of our culture.”
Like Tahane, a 25-year-old woman from the Syrian city of Homs. Tahane fled Homs in late 2012 when it came under siege by planes and indiscriminate bombing. When she arrived in the Jordanian town of Zarqa, she had nothing: no food, no shelter, no way to earn a living, no answers about what was to come.
“I arrived at Caritas Jordan needing help. But, when I was at the social center, I realized there were people around me who needed even more than I did,” says Tahane.
Caritas Jordan is supporting 140,000 refugees across the country with vital relief and assistance, including urgent food, medical care, hygiene supplies, trauma counseling, and education for children.
Within a few months of arriving in Jordan, Tahane asked Caritas if she could volunteer for them – to help reach out to Syrians who are living in some of the most difficult, inhumane conditions in the area.
Tahane is now part of a three-person Syrian team that visits refugee families who have just fled Syria and arrived Jordan. She meets them wherever they are staying – in tents, as squatters, in crowded apartments with other families.
Most refugees prefer to live outside refugee camps and in many cases they have no choice, as camps have the capacity to accommodate only about a third of the refugee population. Since December 2012, the number of “urban refugees” has more than doubled, with families living in overcrowded conditions with other families in small apartments. These urban refugees often depend on savings, limited work opportunities and the generosity of the host population to survive. Many have experienced trauma, violence and the loss of loved ones.
When Tahane meets them for the first time, her purpose is to let them know that help is available to them, that they are not alone.
“When we show up and they see we are Syrian, they are relieved. They hear our voices, they connect to our stories. We tell them we understand, that we went through this, too,” Tahane says.
Tahane lost all that she had built when her house was demolished by bombs. Thankfully, she and her family survived.
“We were all hiding in my basement and we could hear the planes above us and feel the shaking from the bombs. We grabbed our things and just ran,” she says.
“I can’t explain what it felt like in that moment. We just wanted to make sure the kids were OK. We ran out onto the street and waved the first car to get in and get out. There were many cars passing and carrying the injured…we went in one of those cars to Damascus.”
Tahane listens to families who share stories of grief and loss remarkably similar to her own, showing patience and care as they come to grips with their new reality.
“I can’t forget my first visit. I could cry as I think about it. I could not have imagined that the situation facing other Syrians was worse than my own,” she says. “Those who are newly arrived literally have nothing with them. So anything can help them to start their lives. Every time I visit a new family, I wish I had more to help them.”
Tahane recognizes that, in many ways, helping fellow Syrians helps her, too.
“My volunteering here with Caritas helps me to adapt, to not to forget what I’ve left behind. When I’m helping others, I know I’m helping myself. I might be unable to help Syrians within Syria. But when I am helping a Syrian family here, I am helping Syria in one way or another.”
As the needs dramatically grow for the millions of refugees across the region, more Syrian refugees are part of the humanitarian response to save their brethren.
“What gives me great joy is when I see these families the first time they enter the Caritas Jordan center. They know no one. Then they see me, they see our Syrian volunteer team, they know us and they feel instantly secure.”
Tahane loves her work so much she can’t imagine not doing it. She says one of the first thing she hopes for is that she can work back in Syria to help Syrians when they return to their country and start to rebuild, to recover.
“The difference of where we are from, our economic backgrounds, the things that made us different in Syria-that is not relevant here. We are all refugees. We are all in need of help. We are all the same.”
Caroline Brennan is CRS’ senior communications officer for the emergency response team. This post first appeared on the CRS website.