AL MAFRAQ, Jordan – Behind the closed door at the shabby offices of this Jordanian NGO, there are peals of laughter, squeals of delight and occasional bursts of applause. Inside, behind a frosted-glass sliding door, 10 Jordanian volunteers – eight women in tight, brightly-colored headscarves and two slightly sheepish young men – sit awkwardly in a semicircle, while their Israeli teacher discusses with them the importance of intimate, honest communication.
It’s an unconventional scene, not just for the company but also for the content. Straight talk – the kind of emotionally intense free speech that Israelis are known for, and not always for the best reasons – is not something these volunteers are familiar with. They are all residents of the greater Mafraq region, an impoverished corner of northern Jordan best known these days for the swelling Zaatari refugee camp, a tent city of more than 100,000 displaced Syrians that sits, bloated and ever-expanding, on its eastern edge. Conversation here, especially in a mixed-sex group, remains formal and stilted. Raw emotions are hardly ever on display in public. But in a region turned lopsided by the Syrian civil war, which after three years continues to bleed out unchecked, trauma is everywhere. Thanks to a team of Israeli aid workers, though, these volunteers are learning the skills to help treat it.
There are more than 300,000 Syrians living in Mafraq today, both inside and outside the camps, says the director of this Jordanian NGO. Like all of the Jordanians interviewed for this story, he asked that his name not be used for fear that his association with Israel could be used against him. For over a year now, he has been at the forefront of an Israeli-Jordanian partnership, spearheaded by his NGO and the Israeli humanitarian aid group IsraAid. Thanks to a global network of Jewish donors, IsraAid volunteers have been making regular treks across the border and over the pothole-ridden Jordanian roads to his office in Mafraq, where they deliver funds and oversee the distribution of fat purple bags stuffed with dry goods, hygiene products and baby supplies.
But canned goods and laundry detergent are just a stopgap. The refugees, whom the NGO director says will likely never return to Syria, are desperate for mental health care as well as food and toiletries. There is trauma and PTSD in the camps. There is fear, night terrors, children with invisible but permanent scars. So every two weeks, IsraAid has been running a course out of this office on the basics of trauma counseling, a program that will culminate in a the creation of emergency hotline that refugees can call when it all gets too much to bear.
“The situation here is terrible. I am living in a very bad dream, whether I am here or at my house,” says the NGO director. “There are so many things they are suffering from. This is a disaster for the refugees.”
He greets the Israelis with a hug and a tray of steaming coffees. They have become close after so many months working together, and he refers to them as family. Some day soon, he says, he wants to come visit them in Tel Aviv. On longer visits, the Israeli team stays overnight in Mafraq as guests in his home.
He has dreams of a full-scale trauma-treatment program, at the center of which would be a playground where Syrian children could play and learn to be kids again. There would also be employment programs for women and teams that could offer psychological care in Jordan’s overstuffed hospitals.
IsraAid wants to help with all of those plans, and says that they hopefully will in the future. For now, the hotline is where they are starting.
With funding from Jewish donors including the AJC, The Pears Foundation and World Jewish Relief (WJR), they are able to pay two Israeli Arabs – one social worker and one psychologist – to devote two Fridays each a month to intensive, daylong training with the Jordanian volunteers.
Today, it’s the social worker’s turn. She arrives with a briefcase stuffed with readings and worksheets, as well as a deck of brightly-colored cards that bear, in Hebrew and Arabic, phrases meant to stimulate conversations about empathy. This is important, says the social worker, because as Mafraq continues to be overrun with Syrian refugees, resentment, anger and power struggles with the Jordanian population have all begun festering.
“Part of teaching them to deal with trauma is to understand trauma in the context of being refugees, how this affects stress, the way people act with that stress, and how to be sensitive toward that,” says the social worker. “They are looking at the refugees through the lens of being Jordanian, and they need to be aware of how that affects their power in the situation.”
Other training involves recognizing the symptoms of PTSD, learning the delicate skills of listening and asking leading questions, and understanding where to direct refugees for help once they can assess their needs.
At the beginning of the program, the social worker says, it was hard to get some volunteers to talk. When difficult subjects arose, they would shut down or speak in generalities. Now, however, the whole group is animated, and the struggle is to keep them from talking over each other as they each jump to answer questions.
“We have a lot of need for knowledge,” says one of the volunteers, a woman in her 20s wearing a pink headscarf. “To learn about trauma and about communication, all these things, it’s really important to all of us.”
“I feel like she is serious,” says another volunteer, a 20-year-old man, of the social worker. “She is giving us a chance to help the people of Syria.”
Several of the volunteers add that the social worker’s style of teaching is unlike that of any teacher they’ve ever encountered. Rather than just teaching material from a book, they say, she talks to them about real life and things they have all experienced. The lessons have helped them personally, too.
“She worked with us on the model for the six ways for dealing with trauma, and I can put that model onto my own life,” one volunteer says. “Anything I’m dealing with that stresses me, I can work on it now.”
They all know that she is an Israeli Arab, and the team that brings her to the NGO is Israeli. They don’t care, they say, and neither do their families. Their training has helped them focus on people’s humanity first, one volunteer adds, which is a core value of the NGO.
Nevertheless, none of them will allow their names to be printed or their faces to photographed.
For Shachar Zahavi, IsraAid’s founding director, it’s a shame the Jordanians involved have to hide their identity, because it lends the feeling that IsraAid is attempting to fly under the radar. That’s hardly the case, he says.
“I don’t want to hide. What’s the point of hiding?” he says. “No other Israeli organization actually says they’re working in Jordan to help Syrians. There’s a security issue and that’s the main stress of it all, for sure. But I think it’s important that we’re part of the international aid system.”
Word is getting out about their work in Jordan. The Bulgarian government, tipped off to their trauma-training program, recently reached out to IsraAid for help with its own Syrian refugees, who have been pouring into the country from Turkey by the thousands and threatening to plunge the economically vulnerable nation into total crisis. Both Bulgaria’s Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Refugees are working with IsraAid on a program modeled after their Jordanian plan to help rehabilitate the Syrians and address pressing issues of trauma and psychological need.
Today in Jordan, however, help is moving on a smaller scale. Two Syrian women, dressed in traditional hijabs and abayas, arrive at the NGO to pick up their purple plastic bags of Israeli-bought baby supplies. In the next room, the social worker and her volunteers practice guiding refugees through a letter-writing program that will describe their journey to Jordan and the issues they are facing. The NGO director, in his office, chain-smokes, sips his coffee and reminds the IsraAid volunteers how badly he wants to build that playground.
“I had such a huge ambition to help the refugees when I started volunteering here,” says one member of the group during a break. “Now, I actually know how to manage that ambition. I have skills that can actually help.”