Known as ‘the mother of Syrians’ for her work helping refugees, Abeer Khreisha is the Middle East regional winner for UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award.
In the seven years since the conflict in neighbouring Syria brought thousands of refugees to her hometown of Madaba – a historic city 30 kilometres south-west of Jordan’s capital Amman – local volunteer Abeer Khreisha has grown used to being woken up at all hours by the ringing of her cell phone.
“I never switch off my phone,” she explains. “I sometimes receive calls in the middle of the night.”
In the early years, it was mostly newly arrived refugees who had been given Abeer’s number by friends or relatives. They were told that she was the one to turn to for help. “I was the first person that many of them would meet when they arrived,” she says.
Nowadays, it is more likely to be someone that she knows who needs help with food, rent or their child’s education. But whatever the issue, they know that the smiling 50-year-old known affectionately as “the mother of Syrians” will always answer the call and do everything in her power to help.
Abeer has worked as a volunteer in Madaba for nearly 20 years, helping vulnerable Jordanians as well as Syrians, from a local community centre run by the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development. She credits her father, who died when she was a teenager, for instilling a charitable instinct in her through his efforts to help the needy when she was growing up.
The number of people requiring her assistance has increased significantly since 2012 when refugees from Syria’s eight-year conflict began arriving in Madaba in large numbers.
“I started to go on home visits, and I realized the extent of their suffering,” recalls Abeer. “Their psychological condition was very bad, and some of them were sleeping on bare floors.”
Abeer kept in regular contact with the families she met and continues to make up to a dozen home visits each day to check in on people. “I don’t approach it as work, I have made friendships. Now I know almost all of the Syrian families living here.”
There are currently more than 13,000 registered Syrian refugees living in Madaba out of a total population of around 80,000.
The government of Jordan has expended significant efforts and resources in hosting the 660,000 registered Syrian refugees living in the country, but the solidarity shown by locals such as Abeer also plays a vital role. This is especially the case with funding for humanitarian agencies in support of Syrian refugees currently standing at just 30 per cent of the total requested for this year in Jordan and the wider region.
Abeer devotes much of her time and energy to helping the most vulnerable cases she comes across, including children who have lost one or both parents, lone mothers, the elderly and people living with disabilities.
Vulnerability is rife among Syrian refugees in Jordan as the crisis has dragged on, with figures for 2019 showing that almost 80 per cent now live below the poverty line on less than US$3 a day.
It is a measure of her popularity among Syrian children in Madaba that, at a monthly activity day she helped organize for young refugees at a local hall, she remains the centre of attention despite the presence of clowns, stilt walkers and several enthusiastic volunteers dressed as popular Disney characters.
“There’s no-one like Abeer,” enthuses Syrian refugee Ibtisam, who brought her young daughter along for the day. “My daughter loves her – she always invites her to these joyous events.”
As well as organizing activities for youngsters, Abeer uses her local knowledge and contacts to help refugees to find homes, schools and work. She also helps out when she can with money for rent, food and other essentials from her own pocket.
Syrian refugee Haifaa arrived in Madaba in 2013 and was introduced to Abeer by a relative already living in the town. The 48-year-old from Homs had three children with disabilities and no means of providing for them.
“I came to Jordan with nothing,” says Haifaa. “I was a tailor in Syria. [Abeer] bought furniture for our house. She bought me a sewing machine and told people about me, and she would bring work to my house. She’s compassionate, kind-hearted and generous. No matter what I say and how much I say it, it is never enough.”
Abeer says giving people like Haifaa the tools to help themselves, whether through work or education, brings her the most satisfaction.
“Haifaa is now a popular tailor in Madaba. She works to provide for her family. I am proud that the people I have helped are now able to stand on their own feet.”
The Nansen Award is named in honour of Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, who was appointed by the League of Nations in 1921. It aims to showcase his values of perseverance and commitment in the face of adversity.
For her work in helping Syrian refugees, Abeer has been chosen as the winner for the Middle East region for the 2019 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award, a prestigious annual prize that honours those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to support refugees and displaced people.
The as-yet-undisclosed winner of the award will be announced on 2 October and it will be presented by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland on the 7 October.
With official language around refugees in many parts of the world becoming increasingly divisive, Abeer stands as an example of the impact that individual generosity and solidarity can have. Being chosen as a regional finalist for the award feels like a vindication of the work she dedicated her life to, she says.
“I didn’t start this work to get recognition. Helping people is its own reward. But this award gives me the motivation to keep going and do even more.”