How many people spend their 19th birthday at Za’atari? A couple thousand.

July 24, 2014

The first time I went to Za’atari was on my 19th birthday. It began as an average Tuesday at the mercaz: the kids came, we sorted them out and taught them English, and sent them off. After they left, we piled in a car and drove to Za’atari to serve an iftar.

It’s hard to try and paint Za’atari. It’s the fourth largest city in Jordan and the 2nd biggest refugee camp in the world. It holds 81,000 refugees and was opened only 2 years ago. Like many Palestinian refugee camps that have been so long established, it is slowly turning into a city.

At the entrance to the camp are signs giving acknowledging those who have helped make the camp possible. Underneath the tall and proud signs, outside the gate of the camp, were boys in ratty clothing scattered about begging for money, helping load and unload trucks, and wheeling wheelbarrows back into the camp. “Don’t give any of these boys money,” Samara warned.

We picked up our guide and drove to our destination: a tent called the “Shakespeare Tent.” The Shakespeare Tent is an art initiative founded by one of the stars of Bab Al-7ara, Nawar Bulbul, which acts as a theatre and provides acting classes, and where we would be serving iftar. We met the chef and saw the kitchen, which consisted of a pot the size of a swimming pool of mansaf – a traditional dish made of rice, chicken, and vegetables – and a fire source.

As we left the tent, I saw one little girl (the only one we saw out) chasing after a boy who was yelling at her “you can’t catch me!” In that moment I swear I was her – running after Jonathan, determined to out do the boys and not be “a dumb girl.” She pulled her eyebrows together and caught him, and he fell into the dust. He stood up embarrassed, looked at his sniggering friends, said something angrily I didn’t understand and walked off. The girl smiled proudly, and I went up to her to introduce myself. Her name was Raneem, from Dar’aa, and was 13 years old.

When I asked her what she liked to do, she replied by opening her mouth and singing. We were sitting on the floor eating mansaf in the Shakespeare tent in Za’atari, surrounded by the poorest of the Syrian refugees, and here was this little girl with a voice of silk happily singing to me. It was surreal, and I was so entranced by her I hardly noticed the applause of 10 people around us who had stopped eating to listen.

After dinner, some of the actors (including my new friend, Raneem) put on a play that re-enacted the start of the revoloution, with the 7 kids who spray-painted on the wall in Dar’aa. The entire play was silent, and the only sound during the play was that of the mother, who let out a wail over the body of her dead son that pierced my flesh and struck my bones, turning my heart to ash. The play ended with a funeral procession carrying the boy to his burial, and the mother passing out in the arms of her husband.

I was so stunned I could hardly clap. Sherin, the madame’s and I were in tears, yet we were the only ones. Samira looked around and said, “They have no more tears to cry. For us it is a play, for them it is their life.”

When the time came I didn’t want to leave, and I painfully had to turn down Raneem’s invitation to come have tea in her tent. On our way out, we drove down the street they call the “Champs-Elysees” of Za’atari, and I understood what they meant by Za’atari morphing into a city. It is the main market street and sells everything you could possibly dream of, from clothes to shoes to food – there’s even a Zain store.

On the one hand it was happy to see people making the best of their situation and creating lives, not existences, for themselves. But it was also sad to have to see people forced to make their lives in a place like Za’atari. I left Za’atari with a beautiful painting painted on the back of a cardboard chocolate carton Hussein had given me for my birthday, and the best bread I’d ever eaten in my life from a bakery on the side of the road of the Champs-Elysees.

When we got back to the mercaz – exhausted, sweaty, dusty, and gross – I returned to a surprise party thrown for me on the 2nd floor. We danced, I got cake in my face, and we all had fun. I have never been so touched, and seeing everyone wishing me a happy birthday and celebrating with me was absolutely beautiful.

The next day we went back to Za’atari, this time with Fareeq Mulham to do a carnival in conjunction with the Qatar Red Crescent. We spent the night dancing, singing, and playing games with the kids who were equal parts wild and unruly, and sweet and innocent. We clearly stood out, and the kids ran to us, curious to know whom we were and what we were doing there.

I saw one little girl crying in the corner, and I went up to her to see what was wrong. She told me she was dizzy – no doubt from fasting all day in the heat – so I took her to get some water. We drank and talked and when she felt better we went back. The carnival was over and it was time to leave, so they were letting the children out of the caravan and giving them each a parting gift.

“Excuse me, Aya didn’t get a gift.” “No, all the kids did, she’s lying tell her to go away there are other kids who need one!”

Her face fell and her eyes were crushed. Despite all the heartbreak we saw at Za’atari, it was then that a story Hussein had told me of a father telling his unruly son, “Do you know where bad kids go? TO ZA’ATARI!” truly struck me. Here was this sweet, trusting girl, who was being denied her toy because I had put her in the wrong place at the wrong time. Through no fault of her own, her heart broke and she was forced to bear the burden of those meant to protect her. I explained the situation to the guy in charge and he gave her a toy, and the lightest of her burdens was lifted.

Leaving the children again was more painful than the day before, and I left Za’atari not entirely sure my days’ conscience was clean.