Keeping my smile up: My visit to Azraq refugee camp

By Annie Murphy, CARE Canada Ambassador

To be completely honest, I was nervous.

I had signed up to travel to Jordan to experience CARE's work with women and girls, I had asked my mum to accompany me, we had our plane tickets, we had a detailed schedule...But the day before we were supposed to leave, despite all of our preparation and planning, the magnitude of the journey we were about to take really hit me.

I started to ask myself an endless cycle of questions.

Would someone from so far away be welcomed? (Our travel time from Toronto would be nearly 20 hours.) Would an actress with no experience supporting refugees have anything to contribute? (Many of those CARE supports in Jordan are Syrian refugees.) Would I be able to find common ground with people who have been through so much in their lives?

My partnership with CARE came about because I wanted to help shine a light on the inequalities faced by women and girls in countries like Jordan, but I started to doubt that I was the right woman for the job.

After a sleepless, anxiety-filled night wondering what the next days would bring, I got an early morning text from my mum: “I'll see you at the airport! We’re going to Jordan today! How fortunate we are.”

So, I went to Jordan with my mum. And I am so, so glad I did.

Though we were only in Jordan for 72 hours, I met so many different women, girls and local staff that I feel like I could write a huge oak tree’s-worth of pages about every person I met, every story I heard, and every CARE program I learned about. And I hope to do just that one day. But, the thing I really want to highlight most is our trip to the Azraq Refugee Camp on our last day in Jordan, because, and excuse the incredibly eye-roll inducing, yet entirely unavoidable cliché, it changed my life.

One of Asma's younger sister in Azraq refugee camp, Jordan
CARE Canada ambassador Annie Murphy visiting Azraq refugee camp in Jordan

We left Amman early in the morning and began our drive to Azraq. It took us about twenty-five minutes to get out of the chaotic city traffic, and then for the next hour we drove through desert. Barren, scorched, unlivable desert. Just as I was actually about to ask if we were there yet, the first signs of Azraq began to appear. Barbed wire fences, then a security checkpoint, and then a dusty, beige, low-rise city of nearly 36,000 Syrian refugees. Jameel, a CARE worker who helped establish programming even before the camp opened in 2014, met us at the check-point. He hopped in the driver's seat of our vehicle, and narrated as we drove. We were 90km from Syria, 75km from Saudi Arabia, and 255km from Iraq. Sixty per cent of the camp are children. A refugee living in the camp may have to get by on as little as a few dollars per day.

We attracted a whole lot of attention driving into Azraq. Small children collecting water at the newly-installed spigots dropped their buckets and ran towards us, waving with all their might. A mother caught up with her brood of kids and led them our way, smiling and waving. A father walking along the dirt road held his newborn daughter high, proudly showing her off.

“Everyone’s so welcoming!” I said, astounded. There was a brief pause before Jameel responded.

“Everyone wants to be seen,” he said.

It dawned on me then that my mother and I, along with the videographers who accompanied us to document our journey with CARE, weren't just visitors. We were an opportunity for each of these individuals - mothers, fathers, young girls and boys - to be seen and heard by the world outside Azraq.

Our first stop was the CARE-supported community centre.  Three massive schedule boards were set up, detailing all of the programs and activities that were available to the kids: computer skills, meditation, music, taekwondo, and imagination through creativity. The list went on and on and Jameel explained that every class was packed to the brim.

AND OH, THE KIDS! Our next stop was a daycare for kids aged 2 to 10. We walked through tiny tables and chairs and a scattering of toys. A little bald kid toddled through the crowd, gnawing on a cucumber, walking into things, falling down, getting back up again, and continuing to gnaw on his ever-dirtying cucumber. Shrieks of delight and screams of discontent filled our ears. It was deafening.

I noticed a very thin wall and an open door to the other side of the daycare. We walked into a nursery where four babies lay sound asleep in cribs. Despite the commotion outside, each child was eerily still – so still that I waited by each crib to make sure they were breathing. In the last crib,  a baby slept with his arms straight down by his sides, his head tilted at an awkward angle, and his mouth open just a bit.

My mind went immediately to the gut-punching picture in the newspaper four years ago, of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy washed up on the beach after his family had attempted to escape Syria. These crying, laughing, sleeping kids were all Alan, but with a different fate.

After the daycare, we went next door to the recreation facility where another activity (“intelligence hour” according to the master schedule) was in full swing. A volunteer who had been a professor back in Syria was leading 50 kids in a math game. The game, I gathered, was basically, “I call out something from the multiplication table, you guys scream numbers at the top of your lungs until someone finally screams the right answer, and then the whole room applauds.” I’ve never seen such a delighted and eager math class. Of course, there was a prize on the line. The highly-sought item? A ping-pong ball.

About two minutes into intelligence hour, I felt a small hand slip into mine. I looked down to see one of the biggest, goofiest smiles I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. A girl of no more than nine or ten years became my shadow for the next 30 minutes. There are many, many affectionate kids in Azraq, wanting hugs and high-fives, but this little one seemed to want more. I don’t suppose to know her story, but I couldn’t help but wonder about her life. What had she seen? What future lay in front of her? What story would she want me to tell about her to the people back in Canada?

I plan on keeping my smile up, because though so much of what I saw made me sad, and made me angry, it also reminded me how much good can come out of strength, courage, and perseverance. I plan on doing everything I can to share the stories of those I was lucky enough to meet in Azraq.

Annie Murphy

CARE Canada ambassador

After many hugs, many snuggles, and many hand squeezes, it was time for me to go, so I crouched down to give her a hug goodbye. She threw her arms around my neck, and squeezed me so hard her entire body shook.

I think I may feel her hug for all time.

Our final stop before leaving Azraq was a visit to the home of Asma, Rayan, and Zeinab – three teen-aged sisters we had met earlier that day. Asma was the first girl in the camp to ride a bike, has achieved her black belt in taekwondo, wrote and directed a film about her journey to bike riding through the CARE-supported Azraq film school, and is an avid musician. Rayan is soaking up every drop of English she can, is also enrolled in the film program, wants to be a pediatrician, and is currently sitting on her student council advocating for further education as a means of ending child marriage. Zainab is one stripe away from her black belt in taekwondo, designs clothes, plays music, rides a bike, and sits on her student council advocating against bullying. On top of their impressive accomplishments, these girls are also kind, generous, fun, welcoming, and brimming full of hope for their futures.

We were welcomed into the girls’ home by mom, Badra, and their six brothers and sisters. Their home in the refugee camp was a small, plain shelter with a metal roof and walls, but the family gave it all the warmth it needed. We sat down to chat together in the main room, which doubles as a bedroom for the nine kids at night, and were offered snacks and refreshments (soft drinks for the guests, but NOT for the kids).

The mood in the room was light and fun. The kids whipped out dolls with homemade clothes and threw themselves on my lap to show off their counting skills in English: “One…two…three…four...four…six…ape…eleven!” (She’s three, give her a break). Rayan read me one of her favourite quotes that she found on the internet and had saved so she could read it over and over: “When you know yourself, you are empowered. When you accept yourself, you’re invincible.”

The excitement and curiosity of these bright-faced kids was infectious. The translator had to keep telling them to slow down. She was having trouble keeping up with all of the adventures the children wanted to tell us about: what they want to be when they grow up, their favourite foods, who was the best at bike riding. I asked Rayan what she missed most about home. “Flowers," she said without any hesitation. She then proceeded to show me a file on her phone dedicated exclusively to pictures of wildflowers, with every picture seeming to surprise her again through the beauty of each flower.

When it was time to leave, the whole family walked us out to the van. I was smothered in hugs and kisses and promises of newfound friendships and seeing each other again some day soon.

Before I got in the van, Rayan took both of my hands and held them close to her chest. She looked at me with her sparkly eyes, and equally bright smile, and said, “Keep your smile up, Annie."

And so that’s what I plan on doing. I plan on keeping my smile up, because though so much of what I saw made me sad, and made me angry, it also reminded me how much good can come out of strength, courage, and perseverance. I plan on doing everything I can to share the stories of those I was lucky enough to meet in Azraq. I plan on doing everything I can to make sure the smiles of Asma, Rayan, Zeinab, and their siblings are kept up, because these kids (and so, so many others) deserve to have a future that is bright, and positive, and full of hope – just like them.

Join me in building a community of support for girls like Asma, Rayan, and Zeinab. Together, we can help them to unlock a better, brighter future for themselves & their families.