Smiles from the Inside

This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of Sojourners Magazine.

I'M DREAMING. Ten young men about my son’s age are singing me a Mother’s Day greeting to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” I recognize the melody, of course, but the language is foreign. Still, I’m delighted; I clap and laugh.

Oh wait. It’s Mother’s Day 2014 and I’m not dreaming. In a refugee camp in Jordan, ten young Syrian men are singing beautiful Arabic words to me and to two other visiting American moms. It’s our last stop in an intense week of refugee visits; it feels good to be laughing.

I'm in the middle of the photo in blue.
I'm in the middle of the photo in blue.

The singing men, and the young Syrian women who joined as we toured an educational compound in the Za’atari refugee camp, were bright university students in Syria before the war—future historians, mathematicians, teachers, agricultural engineers; some just months from graduating--when the violence of Syria’s civil war forced them to flee.

“But when you end up in a refugee camp,” one of the young men explained, “people treat you like idiots. Like you understand nothing.” Herein lies one of the great refugee tragedies. Living at the mercy of others with little respect, no decision-making freedom, and no control over their future often fuels anger and hopelessness in young refugees.

Curt Rhodes, founder of Questscope, an NGO dedicated to empowering marginalized youth, says, “Perhaps the most dehumanizing thing that can be done to an individual is to take away his or her ability to make choices…[We must] increase their personal agency to make positive change in their lives and the lives of others like them.” Recognizing the innate human need to contribute positively to the future, Questscope trains young adult Syrians like the ones I met to be mentors, caseworkers, and teachers for younger children in the camp.

On a dusty side street in the maze of tents and temporary shelters that make up Za’atari, we find the headquarters—offices and classrooms—of Questscope. Most NGO headquarters in Za’atari are tucked safely behind a protective fence in an isolated portion of the camp, but Questscope takes the radical approach of locating in the community it serves, giving ownership and power to the community, literally giving the keys to the compound to the young caseworkers and teachers it trains.

The young Syrian leaders we met had come to Za’atari as most refugees come, convinced they’d soon be returning home. After two and a half years at Za’atari, they still long for home, but realize “it’s better that we accept this, and work to create a better future, especially for the kids.”

Making home visits throughout the camp, the young Syrian caseworkers identify at-risk kids and invite them to the Questscope center. Through music, art and drama, kids learn to communicate their experiences. In computer labs they learn new skills. In classrooms they choose subjects they want to discuss, and teachers facilitate life skills discussions.

With an estimated 85,000 residents (a conservative number), the Za’atari refugee camp is considered the fourth largest city in Jordan and the second largest refugee camp in the world. It’s hard to imagine anything good bubbling up in desert city filled with traumatized people who have lost everything and don’t want to be there. But the young leaders we met at Questscope—and the kids they serve—radiate vitality, joy and camaraderie.

“We’re like a family here.”

“Everyday we learn something new and we love that!”

“We’re united for the welfare of the kids. We’re Syrians. These are our brothers and sisters. We have to help them.”

“I was destined to be a teacher in Syria. But I never received the quality of training I get here.”

“The kids we teach want to be here. They’re having fun and learning at the same time.”

“When we started we were shy. We couldn’t speak in front of people. Now we are training the trainers!”

“We don’t want to draw smiles on kids faces. We want them to smile from the inside.”

That, I suppose, is why I fell in love with Questscope. They’ve given a few of the nearly 3 million Syrian refugees smiles that emanate from the inside. And that spells a better future.

You can learn more about Questscope and donate to their work at