Guardian Mothers

Some mothers want more than aid; they want to use their skills to work and support their children.

Aisheh, 40, and her children live in a prefabricated housing unit in the Zaatari refugee camp. When Tzu Chi volunteers visited them one day, flies buzzed about in the hot, stuffy interior. Aisheh busily waved the flies away as she deftly doused with a syringe the navel area of her daughter Hanaan, age two. The little girl cried hysterically as stool slowly oozed out of her exposed intestine.

“Her surgical wound needs cleaning once a day,” Aisheh said. “But as temperatures rise, so do the risks of infections.” She has learned much about wound care by looking after her daughter. She does her best to care properly for her, and every Saturday she takes the little one to Amman for follow-ups with her doctor.

Volunteers took out an electric fan that they had purchased especially as a gift for Aisheh and her family. Because electricity at the camp is very limited, the fan is solar powered.

The fan started working the moment a volunteer turned it on. The circulating air cooled down the place and calmed Hanaan, and she soon stopped crying. Her five siblings huddled near the fan, their smiling faces oscillating in unison with the fan.

Seeing how much her children were enjoying the fan, the mother’s face relaxed. She said to the volunteers, “Thank you very much for the fan. It will help drive flies away and keep Hanaan’s wound dry. That’ll help her a lot.”

A volunteer brings a solar-powered fan to a family living in the Zaatari refugee camp. Because there is no electricity most of the time in the camp, this fan will come in particularly handy.

Even more urgent than hunger

Over the years, volunteers have helped a number of refugees in Jordan to obtain medical treatment. In the process, they have gotten to know medical workers at Al-Bayader Surgical Hospital. They have had a good time working with them. As a result of the connections provided by doctors at this private institution, Tzu Chi volunteers were able to collaborate with the Arabian Medical Relief clinic inside the Zaatari refugee camp this year for the first time. The clinic provided the names of children in the camp needing hernia operations, and Tzu Chi sponsored the surgeries. Hanaan was among the 57 children Tzu Chi helped.

Hanaan had a more serious case than the other children, so she was the first in her cohort to receive surgery. She would need additional surgeries as well, for her congenitally misplaced intestines had encroached on her uterus and impeded her ability to expel waste from her body. If not treated properly, she would become prone to intestinal infections and ulcers. Ultimately, her ability to conceive and carry a child someday could be impaired.

Aisheh had taken Hanaan to see doctors at the hospitals in the refugee camp. “They weren’t sure what was wrong with her at first,” the mother said. “But then a doctor determined the problem, and he suggested surgery. I checked with several aid organizations, but none of them would pay for the operation.” With the health of her daughter in the balance, Aisheh had been on pins and needles until Tzu Chi volunteers stepped in and offered to help.

Volunteer Zheng Shun-ji lives in Ireland but has made several extended trips to Jordan to help the local volunteers. Providing support for those 57 children has recently been one of his main tasks. In addition to accompanying them through their hernia operations, he has also established files on each of them for follow-ups. The initial round of surgeries for all 57 children had been completed by early June 2016. Only two of these children required three or four additional operations.

“Hanaan’s surgery is going to cost a lot of money, and our budget is tight,” Zheng once said to Aisheh. “We’ll certainly do our best to help, but it’d be great if you could think of ways to help too.”

Aisheh said immediately, “I understand, and I’ll think of something.” Zheng was impressed by her calmness and fortitude.

Aisheh has been a tough, strong mother. She and her children escaped to Jordan with her brother and his family after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. No one in the two families works, so they rely entirely on the subsidies provided by the UNHCR. There are many people in their household; with what they receive, they are only able to eat about one and a half meals a day.

Even so, Aisheh managed to lay aside enough money over two years to buy a plane ticket for her son, 21, who had lived with her at the refugee camp, to fly to Turkey. From there, he crossed the Aegean Sea, traversed the Balkan Peninsula, and finally reached Germany.

“He’s been in Germany for eight months. He’ll go to college later,” Aisheh said. She borrows a neighbor’s Internet service to keep in touch with him. That he is safely in Germany has made her feel that all her hard work and sacrifices have paid off nicely.

Aisheh, third from left, her older brother, and their respective families have lived together in the Zaatari refugee camp for three years. She is thankful for the help of charity organizations, but she hopes to rely on her own strength to create a better life for her family.

A huge refugee camp

Established in July 2012, the Zaatari refugee camp is just 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the Syrian border. With almost 80,000 inhabitants, it is the largest refugee camp in Jordan and second largest in the world. Only the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is larger.

One prefabricated house or pitched tent after another stands in the Zaatari camp, which consists of 12 zones with named streets and numbered units. The camp is managed by the UNHCR, but outside organizations or people have helped set up schools, hospitals, healthcare centers, community centers, and marketplaces. There are shops catering to refugees’ everyday needs including food, clothing, and entertainment. There are even establishments offering wedding services.

Looking around, we saw people of all ages everywhere in the streets. They strolled leisurely, looking relaxed and completely at ease. They readily granted our requests to take their photos. Some even greeted us on their own initiative or struck up a conversation with us. The tense atmosphere when the camp was first set up was no longer there.

“I’m okay with the living conditions here, except for one thing: We get just one hour of electricity a day, which starts at around seven in the evening,” Aisheh said. “It’s very hot and stuffy in summer, but we couldn’t use electric fans because there’s no electricity [now they have a solar-powered fan], and children can’t do their homework at night without light.”

In fact, there are other restrictions or inconveniences: Their water is rationed, their homes cannot keep out the sub-freezing cold in winter, and inadequate water drainage makes their homes prone to flooding. Education is also a problem. Half of the refugees in the camp are young people—one in five is younger than five years old—but there are not enough educational resources for them.

In disbelief and in tears of joy, Wafiaa covers her face after she opens a box from volunteers that contains a set of hairdressing tools. Her dream has been to open a hair salon of her own. Her daughter, Ayad, left, is happy for her and for herself. Volunteers have promised to finance Ayad’s return to school.

Helping mothers find work

Many Syrian refugees are seasoned workers with employable skills, which regretfully they cannot put to productive use in the camp. Unwilling to waste their lives away, some of them have gotten approval to work outside the camp. Camp rules allow them to stay out of the camp two weeks per month. Even so, most refugees would still rather move out in search of a better future if they can.

“I can sew,” Aisheh said. She had done tailoring back in Syria. “If I had a sewing machine, then I would be able to earn money to supplement our finances or help pay for Hanaan’s surgery.”

Aisheh’s husband had married a second wife before the civil war erupted. [Islam allows a man to have more than one wife.] This had made Aisheh quite sad and unsure about herself. She regained her self-confidence only after she began to sew for a living.

After the outbreak of the civil war, Aisheh’s husband and his second wife stayed in Syria, but Aisheh brought her seven children to Jordan. She alone took care of her children, a tough task for any single mother, much more so because she was a refugee. That she would encounter difficulties was to be expected, and she has indeed encountered her share of hurdles. Despite that, she has never lost heart. Everything that she has done and every decision that she has made have been for the best interests of her children.

“Aisheh has been a remarkable mother,” Zheng said. “We’re considering buying a sewing machine for her, but we first have to find a way to supply power to the machine.” Zheng believes that helping a family is less about giving them money or supplies than about giving them an opportunity to put their skills to work so they can support themselves.

Volunteers are also helping Wafiaa, another tough mother. She lives in Ar Ramtha, 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the Zaatari camp. Wafiaa, 37, and her daughter Ayad, 14, fled their hometown of Darra, Syria, in 2013. They were in a group of more than 40 people that journeyed out of Syria together. They walked for three days along the border before they made it into Jordan.

“We walked all day, as long as it was daylight, stopping to rest only after nightfall,” Wafiaa recalled. “My ear began to bleed for no reason when we reached the border checkpoint. I even got bitten by a scorpion.” Despite the tough and eventful journey, Wafiaa and Ayad safely checked into a refugee camp in Jordan.

Public safety was not a hallmark of the refugee camp, however. Incidences of rape occurring in households without male family members were not uncommon.

One night a stranger broke into Wafiaa’s home. “My daughter and I quickly ran away,” Wafiaa said. “I decided to move out of the camp the next day.” She would rather rent a place and live outside the camp than expose her daughter and herself to the ever-present risk of danger.

Her decision might have been a result of what she had been through back in Syria, where her husband had beaten her for eight years. “The worst incident of all was when he got drunk one day and smashed my head on the floor,” Wafiaa recalled.

The physical abuse over the years may have caused some permanent physical damage. In recent months, she has often felt dizzy and has had headaches. She has even passed out. Her condition forced her to quit her job at a clothing store, and it has left her with no energy to pursue her dream of opening a hair salon to put her expertise to productive and gainful use.

Concerned about her, Tzu Chi volunteers accompanied her to a hospital for a CT scan on her head. “She wasn’t in the best shape on the day of the scan,” Zheng recalled. “We felt we should help build up her hope for a better future regardless of the CT scan results, so we decided to plan a surprise for her.”

Ayad had been out of school for three years, but unlike many refugee dropouts who dreaded school, she had always wanted to resume her education. She wanted to become a medical doctor. Volunteers decided to help her by hiring an experienced teacher to tutor her once a week until school opens in September. Then they will pay Ayad’s expenses so she can resume her studies.

Volunteers told Wafiaa what they were going to do for Ayad’s schooling. They also gave her a box of gifts. When she opened the box, Wafiaa covered her face with her hands in surprise and joy. The box contained tools that she would need as a hairdresser.

“She was really moved that day,” Zheng said. “She was all smiles, quite unlike the sickly patient that she had been at the hospital.”

Wafiaa took out the tools and treated everyone to a hair makeover. After such a long hiatus she was both excited and nervous at first, but she quickly began to work as intently and confidently as a pro. In the end, everyone was happy about how she had cut their hair.

Volunteers then talked to her about fashioning a corner of her home into a salon. She kept nodding her head but said nothing, as if the good things that were happening to her and her daughter had not yet really sunk in, as if she could not believe that her dream was really coming true.

Without a doubt, Wafiaa and Ayad can now hold their future more firmly in their own hands. Volunteers will continue to look among refugee families for people who have marketable skills or a willingness to further their studies. They just may be able to help more of them to improve their lives in their host country.

Volunteers go through a lengthy application process at a hospital so that Wafiaa, in wheelchair, can receive examinations and treatment.


Fall 2016