BYU students visit and serve Syrian Refugees

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Chelsea Elliott with Syrian refugee children while on study abroad in Jordan. (Photo courtesy of Chelsea Elliott)

Chelsea Elliott met a 6-year-old boy who had witnessed his parents’ death. He was fine — as long as someone was holding him. As Elliott prepared to leave, the child stole a water bottle out of her backpack.

Elliott may have lost a water bottle in Jordan, but she and her classmates — BYU students who participated in the Arabic language-learning study abroad — took their memories of those displaced by conflict in Syria when they left the Middle East.

Another experience occurred in Amman, Jordan, when BYU students teamed up with Jordanian youth from the local Greek Orthodox Church to assemble $500,000 worth of hygiene kits. The kits went to 10,000 people in Camp Zaatari, the Syrian refugee camp that houses 60,000 people.

“When we were assembling the hygiene kits, we were laughing and having fun with the Greek Orthodox kids,” Elliott said. “But I really thought, ‘We’re assembling these, and they’re going to a refugee camp probably two to three hours away from here.'”

Lindsay McEwing also spent her Fall Semester in Jordan. As a master’s student in public health she has studied refugee situations. She pointed out that the Syrian refugees are from more affluent backgrounds and are often indignant at being placed in camps once they reach Jordan. It made her consider her own blessings.

“I have so much,” McEwing said. “Americans have so much, and to suddenly be living in a tent in the desert, it made it a lot more real (and) a lot more personal.”

McEwing and other BYU students helped with an activity day for some of the children in Amman. They used their Arabic skills to play games with the traumatized children.

BYU student Paul Rasband plays with Syrian refugee children. (Photo courtesy of Chelsea Elliott)

“I was always kind of scared to talk to people, but I felt more comfortable with kids,” McEwing said.

She made friends with an 11-year-old girl, named Shereen, who had a passion for jumping rope.

“We couldn’t really understand each other very well,” McEwing said. “But we just kind of fell in love.”

McEwing and other students did language exchanges with some of the Syrian teenagers. Conversations ranged from popular music to how the conflict had interrupted their schooling, but they always came back to Syrian politics.

“It was hard for them to talk about their future lives because they just wanted to be home,” McEwing said.

Elliott became a “puppet master” in Jordan. She directed a group of BYU students who translated several health education puppet shows into Levantine Arabic and performed them for the Syrian refugee children. The challenging experience of coordinating rehearsals and performances helped her realize that she wanted to be involved in humanitarian aid as a career.

“After the puppet show, they were just happy, laughing, just playing with us,” Elliott said, “And I wanted to cry, because it just really struck me that we helped them forget for a little while.”

(clockwise from left) Marc Jay, Matt Bird, Phillip Thurston, Joachim Austin and Logan McDermott put on a puppet show to teach Syrian refugee children about good hygiene. (Photo courtesy of Chelsea Elliott)

Paul Rasband, a Maryland native studying business and Arabic, said that the children’s events in Amman were the highlight of a challenging language-learning experience.

“I just found this group of boys, and I just got down on my knees so I was about the same height as they were,” Rasband said. “I pretended like I was kind of hiding from the director. They really liked that I was trying to be like them, and they thought it was hilarious.”

Because of the stress placed on their families, the Syrian children had few adults to even play with them. Rasband was happy to fill the role of “big brother,” and has even signed up for Big Brothers Big Sisters since returning.

Now that the students have returned home, they can fill in the numbers and events they read about in the news with names and faces. However, despite her concern for the Middle East and the people there, McEwing does not always want to read the news reports on Syria.

“Sometimes I don’t want to read another article about people who are dying,” McEwing said. “I want to remember the people I met who are still alive.”

Like many of the BYU students who returned from Jordan, Elliott said she had come to love the Syrians, despite the differences in language and culture. Rasband pointed out that the Syrian conflict applies to America, too.

“What they’re fighting for is not that different from what we’re trying to achieve every time we have an election,” Rasband said.

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