Internet meetings between teens, some of them refugees in Jordan, the others in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles. Created by a nongovernmental organization, these remote exchanges allow these young people to get to know each other.
At the Mahata Community Center in Amman, it's the big day. In this activity center, where young Jordanians and Syrians of the Mahata neighborhood (a poor area of the Jordanian capital) take workshops in theater, music and photography, a virtual meeting via the Internet is going to start in a few minutes.
On screen are about 20 teenagers, mainly African-American, from the View Park school in an underprivileged area of Los Angeles. Mahata and View Park have something important in common: youth, adolescence. The presence of two simultaneous Arab-English interpreters keeps the conversation flowing.
This hour-and-a-half meeting, which takes place twice with a week in between, was made possible thanks to the joint efforts of two associations: Save the Children, which normally offers classes in the center of Mahata, and Global Nomads Group, whose virtual meetings “building cultural awareness and global citizenship” have been its specialty for 17 years.
It will also be followed by exchanges among other groups of young people belonging to a wider and wider network, formed by GNG in Burma, Afghanistan, Canada, Australia and England.
The goal? To give teens the opportunity to consider war by listening to stories from young people like them; to keep them from seeing it as a piece of news lost in a heap of news stories, but instead as a lived story, linked to people they have met and with whom they have been able to talk freely; an opportunity to understand the other, and as a result, see events in another, more human way.
Most of the time, these exchanges via the Internet arouse in the young people who participate in them a feeling of empathy and then awaken in them the desire, the need, to become actors in projects that promote and support peace in the places where it is in danger.
Here we go, the discussion is starting:
We are in a classroom, with chairs lined up. There is a big, white screen in place of a board, where the organizer from Global Nomads in New York and the class from View Park in Los Angeles take turns appearing.
The session starts with a short film, a re-enactment of a war scene, that the two groups have already watched in preparation for this meeting: A child sings in a busy street, like many streets in Syrian cities; suddenly, a deafening bang, a bomb has just fallen. The image speeds up and then freezes. Death has a face, it has a voice. The Syrian children know it; it’s part of the reality a good number of them want to escape by taking refuge in Jordan. For the Americans, it is still a fiction, an abstract image. The idea is that they learn, in talking with those who have truly experienced it, to understand the impact of war on the lives of human beings.
So that the "meeting" works, the teachers on both sides had to prepare the students for a month. In Amman, it's the photography teacher from Save the Children, Agnes Montanari, who is in charge of this.
So that the group would be united, she first had young Syrian refugees talk about the war, and noticed that the young Jordanians didn't know much about it, but that they paid a lot of attention to the story of their peers and were able to change their attitude toward them after having heard their ordeal and their pain.
Then, she worked on the subjects that were worrying students in Mahata, whether they were Syrian or Jordanian, like the difference in treatment between boys and girls, forced marriage and tense, even violent relationships, with parents and teachers, or the extreme youth of the girls when they are married off by their parents and the consequences. It is a thematic way of introducing themselves that helps them, today, with the class from View Park.
Here are some excerpts from the meeting, which lasted in total more than three hours, two Tuesdays in a row:
- Wahed, Amman: Hello, I live in East Amman [the poor area of the Jordanian capital]. Most of us are Syrian refugees, but there are also Jordanians in the group.
- Sabrina, Los Angeles: I know that before the war, Syria was a wonderful place, and that tourists loved going there. After the movie ... the bomb ... I wonder what you would do if you were here, in America, in our place.
- Jamal, Amman: In Los Angeles ... you live in a civilized city, known worldwide for its movies, you have beaches ... We can’t imagine ourselves where you are.
- Robert, LA: What role does the telephone play in your life? We use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook …
- Mohammad, Amman: For us, it’s just a way to stay connected with our families, especially in case of emergency.
Getting Hit at School
- Zacharia, Amman: Here at school, we often get hit? Do you?
-Brandon, LA, with an embarrassed smile: Uh, no. Here, no one hits us. The teachers punish us with Saturday detention.
The War, the Media
-Afra, Amman: Here in Syria, the chemical bombs killed a lot of children, young people, and it’s worse and worse. At first, when the war broke out, lots of Syrian families took refuge in school to escape the bombing ... The media only show the surface of what happens, not deep down. They don’t make room for the tragedy that touches us every day. For them, it will only ever be one event among others ...
-Rachan, LA: Here, newspapers have a negative image of us. They refer to us as “blacks” or “Hispanics.” We live in a society full of racists.
- Jamal, Amman: The war affects me personally. I live alone now, far from all of my family who stayed in Syria. I worry all the time. I’m afraid of the planes that fly over the town, even if I know that here in Amman, they are not going to bomb us.
- Cheryl, LA: If you could, would you go back to Syria? Or would you rather stay in Jordan?
- Hadeel, Amman: If I could, I would go back right away. In any case, my family is going to go back, despite the situation, because we don’t have any more money to live on, and here it’s hard to find work [Editor's note: It’s forbidden].
- Wahed, Amman: The schools in Syria don’t work anymore. I would prefer to go to school here; that way, as soon as I have my degree, I can go back to rebuild Syria.
- Mahmoud, Amman: At first, when the Syrians were coming in great numbers, we were afraid because Jordan isn’t a rich county, and we thought they were going to take our things. But in hearing them, I understood that they didn’t have a choice. And now, I know that they are our brothers and that we have to help them [Editor's note: 650,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Jordan since 2011].
- Afra, Amman, I would like you know your opinion ... Do you think we have the right to start a revolution against Bashar al-Assad?
- Jonathan, LA: Yes, of course! I hope that you will be able to go home soon and that schools will work again soon. But it’s difficult to change the world.
- Afra, Amman: Thank you, yes ... The changes are necessary. And social networks are an important platform that can help us change the world.
A week later, the two groups are much less shy in front of their white screen. And you can feel a real hunger for knowledge.
The Perception of Immigrants and Muslims
- Jamal, Amman: I would like to know if you have Muslim friends in America.
- Jonathan, LA: Yes, a couple, along with Christians, Buddhists and people of other religions. We also have immigrants in California. They do cheap work that no one wants. They clean, and they work in fast food restaurants.
The Fast Food Problem
- Deborah, LA: For us here, there is a big problem with food. Access to healthy food is expensive, and one of the consequences of fast food that we all have easy access to is obesity, which affects all young people. What about you?
- Afra, Amman: Even in the poorest families, we always have a small garden. You should grow your own fruits and vegetables: Do you have land for that?
- Fatima, Amman: My family in Syria is still alive because they planted vegetables in a tiny vegetable garden.
- Jamal, Amman: If you know that fast food is bad for your health, why don’t you stop?
- Annie, LA: Because it’s easy to get and not expensive, and we don’t have time, and we’re too tired to go plant things.
- Rachel, LA: And we don’t have land either.
Discrimination Between Girls and Boys
- Afra, Amman: Here, when we want to go out of the house for a walk, our parents get mad. What about you?
- Robert, LA: For us, it’s when we don’t want to go to school that they get mad.
- Waheb, Amman: Do you have discrimination between boys and girls like we do?
- Afra, Amman: Because here a girl isn’t supposed to be able to take care of herself; we’re forbidden from having friends who are boys, we can’t finish our higher education, they marry us to cousins, and we can’t play an important role in society. Our brothers are treated like princes, and we have to serve them ... That means we end up hating them, or we want to get married to free ourselves from the weight of family. In general, we get married at 15 to 18 years old with men who are 5 to 6 years older than we are, or sometimes even older.
- Sabrina, LA: No, here girls do what they want, even play soccer.
Closing time is getting near. The person in charge from GNG, who is located in New York, takes over the discussion in Arabic:
- OK, kids ... I would like to know what your action plans are: your engagement as citizens.
- Sabrina, LA: We are going to find places where we can plant fruits and vegetables to eat. We are going to ask the city. That will allow us to eat fresh and healthy food.
- Afra, Amman: We are going to create a post and put on a play on the theme of discrimination so that our families realize that it hurts us and affects us.
- Waheb, Amman: Since there are mothers who are part of the social networks, maybe we can raise awareness that way.
- Zacharia, Amman: And on the subject of the perception of Syrians by Jordanians, I would like us to remember what Muhammed said: We are all brothers!
In coming out of the Mahata center, the Jordanian-Syrian group seems convinced: Over there, they aren't living through what we're experiencing, says Jamal, but I think that now that we have met, they will see what is happening here in Syria in a different, more human, light. And maybe they'll say to themselves that they are lucky to have the life they have.
This meeting among young people has obliterated the indifference that has for years too frequently established itself in the spirit of these people, in countries at peace, when they see what others are experiencing in war zones. In people who live in peace, it stimulates the feeling of empathy and the desire to act rather than a feeling of guilt, and that is its strength. This is an idea that others might see as naive, but for the young people who are participating in it, it's about a true engagement and desire, and even the need for action.