Jordan founded Help 4 Refugees in 2012Jordan Hattar

Jordan Hattar arrived in Jordan in 2012, where he spent some time as a freelance journalist in the Syrian refugee camp of Al-Zaatari. After discovering the greatest need was for better housing, he set up Help 4 Refugees, and in July 2013 delivered two prefabricated housing units. A core belief of Help 4 Refugees is that they should aim to deliver what the refugees themselves think are their biggest needs. Jordan continues to give talks on the refugee crisis.

How did you get involved in activism generally and then, more specifically, the refugee crisis?

I became an activist aged 14 or 15, against the genocide in Darfur. As far as what got me into the refugee crisis in Syria, it was actually a story by my Arabic professor. She basically started crying one day after class and I asked her what was wrong, and she told me how two of her cousins were helping pull a body off the street, and they were both killed in the streets of Damascus; it was a really personal story.

I’m learning Arabic, and since we had to study abroad anyways, I thought: “An Arabic country – why not?” So I went to Jordan. I wasn't going to naïvely throw myself into a situation I didn’t know about, but I thought I could go to Jordan, learn Arabic four days a week, and report in the remaining time. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but after high school I left to go to South Sudan, before going to college. I had fundraised money before, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to see what the people actually needed, so I built a medical clinic with a Sudanese lost boy. It was this knowledge of following your heart can actually lead to change. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it, but weeks later I got into the refugee camp as a freelance journalist, sat down with refugees and said “Hey, tell me your story.”

So was it more a case of figuring out how you could help when you got there, rather than coming in from scratch already knowing what you were going to do?

Exactly. I was watching NBC World News with my Dad, and it frustrated me how they portrayed the conflict: just rebels and the government fighting. With my blog in South Sudan I realised that I could maybe be a voice for the people suffering, and be a voice for the refugees. That was my goal: to find out what they needed the most. I was trying to learn what was going on, and how to help. 

Although you didn’t go to Syria, you still went to Jordan – was there not part of you that thought that it was quite a bold move?

Yeah! It was dangerous at times. I was seven miles from the border with Syria, but you still felt a tension. After you sat down for a few hours with a family, you’d see the little boys scratching their skin, because they’re trying to cope with what they’ve experienced. I remember one time, we were sitting with a woman and a plane went overhead, but I didn’t know it was a plane until she froze in the middle of conversation. That’s when you realise they just came out of something horrific. 

How did you make the step from being there, listening to their stories, to wanting to set up Help 4 Refugees?

I’ve always thought if we can make a difference, let’s do it. I didn’t know how to, so I just decided to report as a journalist. Every time I talked to the refugees and asked them what they needed, they kept telling me better housing. Sure enough, hundreds of tents would blow away in the night. I’d continuously hear about kids dying; it was just so hard to deal with because there you are, having such a good life and you know that they’re suffering when you leave that camp. I’d say one story stuck out: when I asked one woman what she wanted to tell the world, she said that her daughters and sons are like my brothers and sisters.

To what extent do you think you’re playing the role of a ‘white saviour’?

I was just back in Jordan last week and I was meeting with a Syrian refugee family, and I was trying to find out new ways of helping. I’ve stopped delivering the caravans because that was just to make sure that kids weren’t going to keep dying in the night. I met this one guy, Moammar, who’s a PhD in material engineering. He actually got a fellowship to Stanford but he didn’t want to take it because his whole family couldn’t come with him. But he can’t even find a job in Jordan! I want to make sure that those type of people are given the ability to work in the country that they want to. Sure, it wasn’t the ideal way just to give things to people. But I didn’t feel organisations were doing what they should, so my idea was just to start something. I wasn’t the first to deliver caravans, but after I delivered I would say there were still 60-70 per cent of the camp without them. The people there pushed this; that was all I was trying to do - push something that the refugees were telling me to do. 

Do you think that having the vast majority of refugees in countries near to Syria is a sustainable solution?

I think the solution is ending the conflict in Syria. I naïvely thought it was going to end in 2012, I naïvely thought it was going to end in 2013. There’s at least five million more internally displaced people in Syria; that will make it even tougher to find places for refugees to live. They don’t want to leave the Middle East. I’ve talked to some people in Calais and other areas of Europe, and they’re saying they can’t get work permits in these neighbouring countries. We have to make it sustainable for the refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Not everyone can go to Jordan and help there; what do you think the best way is for people like us to help?

There was a humanitarian worker when I was in South Sudan, and I asked her what our jobs is in life. She said that our job is simple: we are to love no matter what, and it is in that no matter what that the strength of love is defined. I keep that with me because, as Martin Luther King said, it’s how we respond in moments of challenge that define us. I think we all have to find our own way to respond; it’s about finding out what we’re good at already, and what’s in front of us. What’s in front of us right now is you bringing this story to Varsity, it’s giving talks in Cambridge. We can’t become peacemakers in the world until we become peacemakers in our own little world. 

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