By Vignesh Ramachandran, Communications Intern
Mafraq means crossroads, and it is at the crossroads of many things. Mafraq is this mixture of western town meets Mars-like desert, without all the colour. Its beige buildings seemingly melt into the pale brown desert background under the harsh summer sunlight. Its sparse population was once a trading post at the intersection of highways: Iraq in the east, Syria to the north, and Amman in the South. Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011, almost 80,000 Syrian refugees now call Mafraq home, and Mafraq appears once again a crossroads of places and people.
Esraa walks into the room where we planned to meet, full of confidence and excitement. And we start talking, mostly about her life and Mafraq at first.
Esraa tells me that she grew up as the only girl of three brothers, and that she was always shy. Although she regularly took part in community work with other NGOs and at the local community centre for girls, nobody expected her to change or be any different. She was always known as the quiet and reserved one among friends and family.
“When I started at Generations For Peace (GFP), I was alone. I was the girl who didn’t go out, who didn’t leave the house, who didn’t do anything or talk to anyone. I used to blush about everything! I could never have predicted that I’d go out and speak in front of people.”
“GFP is the main reason behind my change. Everyone is surprised by it. They ask, ‘How is this Esraa?’”
“I now see myself as the strongest woman in Jordan,” she says.
Esraa speaks intensely about her work and with so much passion that it makes you want to be involved. It really does feel like Esraa is the strongest woman in Jordan.
Today Esraa is a volunteer with the GFP-UNICEF Social Cohesion Programme, which brings together Syrian and Jordanian youth in urban communities impacted by the refugee crisis. Almost 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside of camps in Jordanian communities, where they face difficulty accessing quality education, a lack of job opportunities, and restricted access to healthcare.
“The situation here in Mafraq was very bad, especially between Jordanians and Syrians…When the refugees first came to Mafraq, there were a lot of problems. Everywhere. At the bakery, people would say, ‘You’re Syrian, why did you come here to get bread? Stand in the back.’ Young kids in school would get aggressive and fight each other.”
There are approximately 660,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, increasing the pressure on Jordan’s economic and social infrastructure. The influx of school age children (226,000 registered Syrian refugees between the ages of 5-17) means that many schools in host communities run two shifts, one in the morning and another in the afternoon to accommodate everyone.
“People were worried that the country was overflowing with people [Syrians]. They were worried that if you went to a store, you would only see Syrians.”
“Being Syrian meant that you were the enemy.”
As a GFP volunteer in Mafraq, Esraa has had an integral role in transforming her local community. Along with a team of committed volunteers, she conducts sessions with Jordanian and Syrian girls from the area, using sport and arts-based activities to increase resilience and reduce the risk of violence.
“I can tell you that the situation is completely different now. Half of my friends are Syrian. Neighbours have begun understanding and accepting each other. At first, people asked, ‘how can they come live in our houses?’ But now they are fine.”
But Esraa also tells me about the challenges that she and other volunteers faced when the programme first started in Mafraq. She narrates stories of girls who would not sit together or could not even stand to be in the same room as each other, and how readily they slung verbal abuse.
“They used to say, ‘Oh you’re Syrian? I’m not talking to you. Impossible.’”
“There are lots of examples [of animosity], especially between children. When the Jordanians leave the school at 12:30, the Syrians enter. The Jordanian girls would start fights with the Syrian girls, ‘You’re making my school dirty, scribbling on my desk. Why are you here?’”
However, Esraa noticed how things began to change, slowly at first.
“They became friends. I saw it in their actions: ‘I want to come to your house today.’ ‘I want to leave school with you today.’ ‘Wait for me at 12 [at the school], so that I can see you before you leave.’”
According to a recently published study, young Syrian refugees build resilience by integrating into their communities. And Esraa plays a key role in doing just that; she helps Syrian and Jordanian youth build friendships, allowing them to find their inner strengths and dignity, as opposed to feeling vulnerable in a foreign community.
When I asked her if she thought her role was important in how the girls changed, she promptly replied, “Of course.”
“First of all, I have grown up. I was quiet – I didn’t know how to speak in front of people. I developed myself, and that is what I am most proud of. I know who I am.”
I could not help but smile. Esraa is an unapologetic, strong woman who works against all the odds to help everyone around her.
“After we finished our [first] programme in Mafraq, we saw so many success stories. When we see a girl in the street, she [tells us that she] wants us to repeat the programme because she benefitted from it so much!”
It is hard not to be touched by Esraa’s exuberance. Her pride and love for volunteering are evident each time she narrates a story or experience. To be honest, I am shocked to know that she was ever shy or reserved.
“Now if the Syrians wanted to leave, the citizens of Mafraq wouldn’t let them. We’ve adopted their customs, traditions, food, and we do things like them. And now, they speak like us!”
Crossroads seem temporal, a place you stay for a night and leave.
It feels like Mafraq has outgrown its time as a crossroads, and wants to be a community.