Half A World Away, New England Ties Among Those Working To Support Refugees In Jordan

Feb 2, 2017

Reporter Nina Keck is in Jordan this week to report on what life is like for Syrian refugees awaiting resettlement. Along the way, Keck has bumped into Vermonters working to support them.

Keck spoke with VPR’s Annie Russell about the connections.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. Listen to the full interview above.

Vermonters in Jordan

It’s funny how many people I’ve met here with projects or ties to our part of the United States:

Cassandra Wanna is senior at Middlebury College studying psychology — who’s spending this year at Middlebury’s School in Jordan.

While in Jordan, Wanna has been volunteering at the Azraq camp, which currently houses about 55,000 Syrian refugees, and her work there has had such an impact that she’s changed her study plans.

She was only going to spend a semester in Jordan and then head to Paris for the spring semester — but she found the work at the camp so challenging and rewarding that she’s canceled her plans for Paris and will stay the entire year in the Jordanian capital city of Amman. She’ll be doing an internship with Care Jordan at the Azraq camp, where she’ll work mostly with kids to help them stay busy and occupied outside of their time in school.

"People don't realize what a refugee camp is even like and when they heard about it everybody is kind of shocked that that's the environment that people are living in." — Cassandra Wanna, Middlebury College senior studying in Jordan

Wanna says she feels like refugee work is definitely something she will pursue as a career and feels passionately that people need to better understand the problem and the people affected.

“I’ve had a lot of great conversations with Jordanians who didn’t know what was going on in the camps, who kind of thought that once people are set in the camps everything was set for them — or even going home,” Wanna says. “People don’t realize what a refugee camp is even like and when they heard about it everybody is kind of shocked that that’s the environment that people are living in.”

And then there’s Ellen Bevier, another Vermont connection.

Bevier, grew up in Rutland and moved to Jordan after graduating from Middlebury College last May. Like Cassandra Wanna, she’s also been involved with refugees, working at the Zaatari refugee camp with a nonprofit called Questscope, which runs youth centers in Zaatari. She says programs focused on kids are especially important because half the population in refugee camps are children.

Inside Zaatari: In The World's Second-Largest Refugee Camp, Syrians 'Live Day By Day'

Her nonprofit also provides alternative educational programs across Jordan for Syrian refugees and Jordanians who’ve dropped out of school and need additional help to finish high school.

Bevier said she was excited to hear her hometown’s plans to resettle refugees.

"We're turning away hard workers who will bring growth to our economy and bring a little bit more diversity and a little bit more acceptance and tolerance to a country that absolutely needs that." — Ellen Bevier, Middlebury College alum and program officer at Questscope in Jordan

But said she was shocked and frustrated last week after hearing that program would be suspended and about the extent of President Trump’s executive order:

“We’re sending home students, we’re sending home professors – one of my professors from college is stuck in Iran right now,” Bevier says. “We’re sending away people who are applying for PhD programs and who are there to work and settle down with families. We’re turning away — who are exactly the kind of people we want – we’re turning away hard workers who will bring growth to our economy and bring a little bit more diversity and a little bit more acceptance and tolerance to a country that absolutely needs that.”

Connecting young New Englanders with Jordanian and Syrian kids

Even among Jordanians affiliated with groups that are providing services to refugees there are New England connections.

Hanin Odeh is the director of the Royal Health Awareness Society, a Jordanian nonprofit that funds medical programs to help Syrian refugees and Jordanians with chronic health issues like diabetes and heart disease. They also provide special training and supplies to help schools better educate Syrian and Jordanian students about health, nutrition and wellness.

Hanin Odeh is the director of the Royal Health Awareness Society, which just launched a new pilot program that pairs middle school girls from Lyme, NH with middle school-aged girls from Jordan and Syria.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

The nonprofit just launched a new pilot program sponsored by Dartmouth College that pairs middle school girls from Lyme, New Hampshire with middle school-aged girls from Jordan and Syria. The girls take part in monthly conference calls about wellness and health issues — like smoking, drugs, healthy foods here and healthy foods there – and how cultural differences can affect the choices the girls make.

Hanin Odeh said they were really excited with how it was working out and how it was helping break down cultural borders and stereotypes and create some really interesting global bonds.

Nina Keck's reporting from Jordan on the refugee crisis is supported in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.