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Australian teacher's refugee wake-up call

  • 27 March 2013

I'd been to Jordan twice previously. I stayed with my friend's family and experienced Middle Eastern hospitality. I fell in love with the people and culture, and decided to return alone to volunteer and see what opportunities would arise. I arrived in August 2011 for what was to be a six month stay.

Within the first month I was invited to visit a refugee camp 40 minutes away from Amman. I accepted the invitation, but did not know what to expect. I was met with harsh realities and deep sadness — a far cry from the life I had grown accustomed to in the capital.

The Gaza refugee camp in Jerash contains many thousands of Palestinians who cannot return home. Each family of up to eight or nine people is given approximately 90 square meters to live in, in buildings said to house asbestos. There is little means of entertainment and children pass their time on the streets. Depression hangs in the air, mingling with the overwhelming odour from the inadequate sewage system.

I met one family in their home, and asked if they would mind me taking pictures. I was shown a small bedroom shared by all members of the family, and a makeshift bathroom. Tyres as well as bricks lined the roof to protect against wind and rain, and a swing hung precariously in a tiny room for the children.

Despite the standards of living, the family unity was strong, and the seed of hope evident among the young people.

I visited Qaran House, an organisation that offers preschool to four and five-year-old children. It is the only establishment of its kind in the camp, and it struggles for resources. Children sit on the floor or cramped around tables and unsafe wooden desks. But they are happy to be there.

I thought back to my own experiences as a teacher in Sydney; of how I complained about a lack of resources in my classroom. What I saw at Qaran House made my complaints seem insignificant. I remembered my five and six-year-old students writing their weekend recounts, describing how they would spend time playing video games, going to the movies and playing with their friends. How different the children at this camp were.

There were only five small rooms at Qaran