Refugees Struggle With the Same Things We Do: Dunya Habash at TEDxBirmingham (Transcript)

Dunya Habash – TRANSCRIPT

I am the daughter of Syrian immigrants to the United States. I grew up with Syria as a second home. I have childhood memories in Aleppo and Damascus, some of the very places that have been devastated by the current war. I watched my extended family slowly leave the country as the situation got worse and worse, and by the time I got to college, I felt like I needed to do something to help me feel connected to the struggle of my fellow Syrians.

So, I decided to visit a Syrian refugee camp and film a short documentary. In the summer of 2014, against my parents’ wishes, I set out to visit the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, which turned out to be the beginning of a long journey of self-discovery; a journey that has led me to the Refugee Study Center at Oxford University. Access to the camp was granted through Save the Children Jordan, and after arriving in Amman, I met my bodyguard, Sultan. Yes, I said bodyguard, and he told me to prepare myself for a long car ride.

So, we jumped in his SUV and rode out into the country, giving me plenty of time to question my decision to visit the camp. Eventually, the green farmlands morphed into dry sand as we made our way into the desert, and soon everything in sight was red earth. Well, everything except the paved road that we were driving on. Zaatari was literally in the middle of the desert.

Soon, we turned off the paved road and started driving in the dirt, and a large white structure loomed in the distance. At this point, Sultan turned to me with a nervous look and told me to quickly put away my camera equipment. So, naturally, I started freaking out! What if they didn’t let us in? What if after all of that planning, I would get stuck at the entrance? What if they didn’t like young Syrian-American women with cameras?

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But, luckily, the guard at the gate already knew Sultan, so he just waved us through. So, I was finally there, I was finally in Zaatari, or, so I thought, but we still had more security to go through. So, Sultan took me to the administration building where I found myself sitting in front of a young Arab man behind a large wooden desk, and he proceeded to lecture me for 30 minutes about being ethical with my interactions and filming, and he examined my passport and permission letter at least five times before deciding that they were real enough for his seal of authority. But he did finally give it, and that was the last hurdle.

So, I was finally there, after six months of planning. It turns out, though, it wasn’t what I was expecting. Walking into Zaatari I was quickly confronted with a very painful personal truth: that I, the daughter of Syrian immigrants, carried with me several stereotypes about refugees that I didn’t even realize I had. It was nothing like the stories I had seen on Facebook.

Walking into Zaatari, I thought that I would see NGO volunteers handing out food to refugees because that’s what I saw in the news. Everything that I read before going to Zaatari seemed to always be that refugees complained about food and services, that they received aid, that they were powerless and helpless people. What I saw, however, was refugees who were not lacking in initiative. Zaatari had only opened two years earlier, and yet, by the time I visited, there were hundreds of stores that sold anything you can think of: hookahs, toys, coffee, Syrian desserts, vegetables, perfume, wedding dresses, food. Anything.

When I met Selma, a hairdresser, I found someone who was taking her community above a subsistence level, someone who was going beyond what humanitarian aid provides. She was helping brides feel beautiful on their wedding day, in a refugee camp, in the middle of the desert. I interviewed Selma in her private salon, which she had recently opened. She was a hairdresser back in Syria and felt that her life was unpredictable and without purpose when she moved to Zaatari.

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So, together with her mother and sister, she gathered enough resources to buy a trailer and opened a private hair salon for women in the camp. Now, she supports herself and her family with the income that she makes from her business. The more stories I heard and people that I spoke with, the more I began to feel ashamed for the misconceptions that I held. Even though there were subconscious, I still felt ashamed.

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