University’s student leaders seek aid for Syrian refugees
La Sierra University students Caitlin Cuenca and Andrew Pedersen had witnessed extreme poverty and disease during aid missions to other countries. But nothing prepared them for the ravages of war they encountered during their December visit with Syrian refugees in Jordan.
The two La Sierra students, who hold student leadership positions at the university, spent Christmas break meeting Syrian families in Jordan’s capital city of Amman, and in Mafraq on the Syrian-Jordanian border. With the assistance of the Adventist Development Relief Agency in Jordan, they visited refugee families, delivered winter coats collected at La Sierra and took note of the desperate need for clothes, medical care and food.
Their journey was part of a yearlong aid campaign initiated by Cuenca last fall called Project: Syria. As religious vice president for the Student Association of La Sierra University, she organized the effort after researching the atrocities suffered by tens of thousands of Syrians forced to flee their homes in the face of civil war. “I wanted to start a year-long project for the campus to engage in,” said Cuenca, a senior bio-health science major. The project also ties in with her career goals of becoming a missionary dentist, and with her beliefs that God calls everyone to some form of service. “This year at least, the refugees happen to be mine,” she said.
Cuenca recruited Pedersen, the university’s Student Missions director and a religious studies/pre-nursing major, and the two embarked on their mission under the auspices of the student association. First they held a winter coat drive at the university, purchased airline tickets with their own money, and flew to Jordan to deliver the coats to refugee families. Then they raised more than $2,000 through a benefit concert on Feb. 22 featuring Christian band, The Brilliance. They will next raise money during La Sierra’s annual and popular REVO fashion show on April 27. REVO is organized each year to benefit outreach projects in different parts of the world.
At the end of the school year, Cuenca will mail a check for the funds raised to aid ADRA’s Jordan operation. ADRA is an international humanitarian aid organization of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In Jordan it is striving to help refugee families who have left the massive United Nations camps and are struggling to pay rent, buy food, clothes and medicine on roughly $35 a month per individual provided through the U.N.
“A lot of families were saying they were behind on their rent and they can’t pay for medicine for their kids,” Pedersen said.
Since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, about 2.1 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries with 600,000 registered in Jordan, according to the Syrian Refugees, a project of the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute. More than 80,000 are housed in tents in the Jordanian refugee camp Za’atri set up in 2012, the second largest refugee camp in the world.
In Jordan, Cuenca and Pedersen stayed with the parents of a La Sierra alumnus who teach English in Amman. Led by ADRA representative Ramzi Remond, the students met with several refugee families in their sparse apartments in the capital city. With the assistance of their American hosts, they traveled by car about 45 minutes to the border town of Mafraq near the Za’atri camp to meet with 15 more families. Through various conversations translated by Remond, they learned of the dangers and difficulties confronting vulnerable refugees, particularly widows with children and the disabled. They learned that families who want to leave the camps must have a Jordanian sponsor and carry laminated papers indicating their refugee status. They survive on the U.N.’s provision.
The families told the La Sierra students they hope for peace and to return to Syria, said Pedersen, because they don’t know how they will survive.
With crayons and paper provided by Cuenca and Pedersen, the refugee children drew their perceptions of their homeland and of the conflict tearing at their nation. Many created brightly colored, detailed drawings depicting shootings and attacks and individuals dying.
“It was sad to hear the stories from kids not event 10 years old yet, and they’re seeing people getting shot in the street,” Pedersen said. “They would still be smiling, happy to be in a photo. Even through all this they still have hope.”
“It was really emotional for me. I cried a lot,” said Cuenca. “People don’t realize how bad it is until they see it for themselves.”
ADRA Jordan helps anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand Syrian refugees at a given time, depending on the particular project underway. The assistance provided is generally in the form of non-food items such as clothes and blankets in the winter. On Feb. 26 the agency was preparing for a third phase of a Cash-for-Rent project and wrapping up an education basic needs support program benefitting 4,837 school children. “We offer Syrian as well as poor Jordanian locals any help and relief available,” said Remond. “But the greatest need is and might always stay, paying the hefty monthly rent for most Syrian families who took refuge in Jordan.”
While local Jordanians welcome Syrian refugees and in most cases treat them as equals, life for the refugee families is “pure hell,” commented Remond. “Medical insurance for an average Syrian family doesn’t exist, virtually. They think twice before sending their kids to be treated from say, a bout of common cold that can become for them extremely life-threatening.”
ADRA Jordan, to help alleviate daily suffering, would like to raise between $10,000 and $50,000 to initiate projects benefitting the refugees.
Despite witnessing much suffering, Cuenca said her faith has been strengthened throughout the aid campaign. “Coming back to America and seeing the support is promising. They [refugees] can’t see it because they’re on the other side of the world but, at the right time when ADRA helps them in whatever ways they can, hopefully they’ll be able to see and experience God,” she said.