Here and There: From Jordan to the Philippines

On World Humanitarian Day, UNHCR High Profile Supporter Atom Araullo shares how we are bound by our shared humanity with families who fled war, conflict, and violence.

The Azraq Refugee Camp, a sprawling site in the middle of the Jordanian steppe and currently home to over 36,000 Syrian refugees, is the perfect example of the plasticity of distance. Earlier this year, as bombs fell in neighboring Syria and the faint thud of explosions vibrated across the desert and into their shelters, the fighting seemed too close for comfort. But on a hot, wistful afternoon in July, as refugees sit in the shade dreaming of their beloved, war-torn country, home seemed so far away.

It is this paradox that renders the exact location of the refugee camp almost meaningless: 90 kilometers from the Syria-Jordan border and 100 kilometers from the capital, Amman. Here, amidst rows of tents divided into 5 villages, I am witnessing a small miracle. Despite the limited water supply, Eid Al Zlefan has sprung a garden in his tiny backyard, with corn, pepper, mint, and a solitary melon growing in the corner. The sweet, fleshy fruit is a source of much excitement for his 4 year-old daughter, Behan, second in a brood of 4, who checks up on its progress first thing every morning.

Eid’s family walked over dozens of days to escape constant bombing in their hometown at the outskirts of Palmyra. They were allowed entry into Jordan on April 4, 2016, and have stayed in Azraq Camp ever since. His conflicted feelings about home reflects the deep insecurity that many refugees feel. “Home is dear to everyone wherever you are from. I love it. I miss it, but I’m scared of it as well. I’m worried that if I return I don’t find the people that I love. This is what makes me a little bit anxious when I think of Syria,” Eid says.

For now, at least they are safe. But as we proceed with our mission in Jordan, things are happening back in the Philippines too. In Basilan, a suspected suicide bombing kills at least ten. In Bulacan, protesting workers are violently dispersed at their picket line. The inflation rate climbed to 5.7% in July, the highest in years. We clearly have serious problems of our own. Why should we care about a crisis happening thousands of kilometers away?

Indeed, the answer depends on our own circumstances, and the privileged lives we may or may not enjoy. Filipinos would be forgiven to take a step back from the troubles of the world, and the choice to support UNHCR’s work both in the Philippines and abroad is my own. But I have witnessed compassion from many people from as many backgrounds too, and I know that our fortunes, though seemingly removed, lie closer together than we think.

Jordan is not what we might consider a rich nation. It is resource scarce, importing oil, energy, and even water from neighboring countries. Yet they have taken in more than 650,000 registered refugees since 2011, with at least the same number of undocumented migrants based on some estimates. It has not been easy on the locals, but the support for their Syrian neighbors has been overwhelming. In Amman, where tens of thousands of refugees are staying with the urban community, having a Syrian neighbor has even become a source of pride for some. “They’re the best at cooking,” a Jordanian lady of modest means exclaimed. “And they’re so good looking too!” She adds with a laugh.

Smiling broadly, one refugee recounts moving into the village of Salt at the onset of Ramadan. The day his family arrived, members of the community received them, ready to provide assistance. For 30 days, he never had to prepare breakfast before the fast began, because neighbors were always inviting them to eat in their home.

That sounds like something Filipinos would do.

No, it is not the resources we have but the size of our hearts, not the money we can spare, but our solidarity with the displaced. When we stand with the most vulnerable members of society, aren’t we really standing up for ourselves?

No, it is not the resources we have but the size of our hearts, not the money we can spare, but our solidarity with the displaced. When we stand with the most vulnerable members of society, aren’t we really standing up for ourselves? For who are these refugees? They are doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, college graduates, businessmen, farmers, workers. In other words, they are just like you and me. And Filipinos know what it’s like to have our lives upended in the blink of an eye. We know what it’s like to be driven away from home, to have nothing to our name, to lean on others for support.

We need to be that pillar of support for others too, in ways big or small. Sometimes, it is enough for refugees to know that people care for them and know about their crisis.

Back in Azraq Camp, we say our goodbyes to Eid and wish his family well. His patch of green truly is a sight for sore eyes in the gray expanse of the desert, and much like the camp itself, is proof that life always finds a way. These shelters lie in the middle of the Jordanian desert, but they might as well be in our own backyards. It doesn’t really matter. What matters right now is that they’re here, their needs are still growing, and that the rest of world have not forgotten.