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Let The World Change You, Then You Can Change The World.

June 14, 2012

A comprehensive post about what I’ve learned as a person and a journalist in 33 days in Amman Jordan: go.

The words that first come to mind: sweat, hospitality, love, exhaustion, horror, maturity, disgust, stress, shame, pride, anxiety, hilarity, deadlines, fear, frustration, filth, cabs, awe, peace, nostalgia, despair, helpless, cigarettes, triumph, welcomed, overwhelmed, family, hope. Reading through my blog, I see these themes interwoven in my posts.

But the heart of my experience lies in my first assigned story of the trip: Syria. The morning after I landed in Amman, Jordan, I received an email from my professor requesting a pitch by 11 a.m. about Syrians. With more than a slight bit of panic about reporting in a country I’d known less than a day, so began my classmate Matt Kauffman’s and my journey into the underbelly of the Syrian humanitarian crisis in Jordan.

This story consumed me. Often times I reported from early in the day until late into the night, interviewing sources and arranging meetings with anyone remotely involved with Syria. I woke up in the morning to news alerts of the latest massacres by President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Drinking my Nescafe, I read articles with linked YouTube recordings showing women and children brutalized, burnt beyond recognition, disfigured by explosions, shot, stabbed. Gruesome videos filled my browsing history. These images became part of my daily routine.

I had followed the escalating violence in Syria since last year in America from afar via Twitter and other media. As the months passed, the number of dead civilians climbed. Like many other informed Americans, I had a logical loathing of Bashar al-Assad. But I was removed from the fighting. I read the death count and felt outraged that something like this could be happening. But then again, I had articles to write. Deadlines to meet. Video to shoot. I had time for Syria’s story only in bursts.

That changed when I met a family of Syrian refugees on May 23 in Mafraq, a city less than 20 miles from the Syrian border in the north of Jordan. For the first time, those numbers had a face – a mother brought to tears as she described the losses her family had experienced, a laughing infant with juice stains running down the front of her sweat suit, a young boy with a ghastly scar across his skull, a shy teenager peeking out from under a dark brown hijab with a nervous smile and a father who has given up his fate to Allah – the only entity he believes can stop the killing in his homeland.

I thought myself to be well versed in horrific videos before I visited this family. Previously, I had pulled up Youtube footage from Syria on my laptop while in the comfort of wherever I happened to be: my bed, a café, the SIT office. But when I watched a beheading on the father’s cell phone in Mafraq as he described the murder and brutality happening on the streets of Homs, I was not comfortable. I was haunted.

As I rode home in a taxi that night, I unconsciously touched my hands to my throat as the grisly images of the beheading replayed on a loop in my mind.

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This scene — with different families in Amman, Mafraq and Madaba — played out several times over the course of Matt’s and my reporting. I couldn’t not become emotionally involved in my story. There were many nights after reporting when I cried into my pillow or sat numbly somewhere, chain-smoking cigarettes and trying to forget the horrors people had recounted to me that day.

Fittingly, my trip ended with Syria. My last day in Jordan was spent on the top floor of the SIT office, translating video of Syrian children’s perspective of what had happened in their country and why they were in Jordan.  I was still doing this with my “handler” and translator, Talal, 15 minutes before our bus left for the airport at 2 a.m.

In the plane before the exhaustion of staying up for two days drove me into a dreamless stupor, I looked toward the window and thought, “What will happen to them? Will someone else continue to tell their stories?”

I felt like I was leaving my family behind. I felt like I still hadn’t done enough.

*          *          *

I learned so much from working with my peers and professor. But some of the most valuable lessons were those that I had to learn on the fly, such as holding myself together when the people I was interviewing were falling apart. I didn’t always succeed. But in those conversations, we were brought together by our humanity – one person feeling the pain of another, and being moved by that connection. Those brief moments when I looked into the eyes of grieving people and felt their anguish will never leave me. Their faces are seared into my memory.

A hundred pictures flash in my mind as I think of the right person and the right quote to end this “leaving Jordan” post. How do I sum up such a big experience? I can’t possibly mention everything and everyone who has changed me. There are two people whose strength I am certain I’ll never forget though.

The first is a young girl named Qamer – she is a 12-year old from Syria. While I was videotaping her, I asked how she could be so brave to talk to me when so many other people were afraid of the regime. Without pausing, she looked directly into my camera and said, “I’m not afraid of Bashar.” Then she repeated herself.

The second person is young man from Syria, 23 years old, who came here eight months ago for work. He is devasted by what is happening in his beloved country, but when he talked about Syria, his eyes glimmered with hope for the future.

“I’m so sad about my country but I believe in faith. We can’t stop everything but we can hope. I don’t care who is president. I don’t care about politics. I don’t want any more blood. There’s a lot of blood. I don’t want to be sad, all I think is it’s going to be better. We have to wait. We just have to wait.”


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