Things Carried

Vest

I’m a volunteer — I’ve worked for two years for free — but I wear this vest to be professional while I’m going around the camp. The pockets are also useful to carry my phone, money, and everything else.

Puppets

Some of our kids are scared to talk on stage, but they’ll do it with a puppet. The animals dance too. At our next play, I’ll be the rabbit with Ibrahim. He’s 10 and can’t talk, but he’ll make the rabbit dance and I’ll be the voice.

Mission statement

I carry this to remember what we’re working for: to change social attitudes and to give the kids confidence and empower them. If a kid says, “I can’t write,” we say, “Take the pen and try. You’ll get stronger.”

Sign language dictionary

We decided to use sign language as another form of communication for the children. We put on a silent play to raise awareness about children who can’t hear or speak. We still review sign language so we won’t forget.

Props

We volunteers make props for every play. This one was a play about SpongeBob’s birthday, where all the kids attended his party and brought these gifts for SpongeBob. It’s a play about friendship. I was SpongeBob.

Speaker

The speakers are really important for music, which we choose specifically for each play. Usually they’re Arabic songs, sometimes very old, traditional ones — Syrian, of course. But sometimes we have thematic music.

Cell phone

I call the kids’ families the day before each rehearsal and before I pick them up. I have all their numbers saved here and on my laptop. It’s important to keep the parents informed so they trust us.

Sign

The name of the company is Mark of Hope. In Arabic we use the word basma, which means fingerprint, because everyone has a different fingerprint of hope in their lives.

Laptop

I use this to connect to the speakers for music during the plays. We try to use a lot of Syrian music, because we want to remember our heritage and because everyone loves to dance.

Crutches

We use these for physical therapy. But on stage, we try not to use crutches. If a child needs them, we’ll give him a role in a chair. Then he feels more confident about not walking across the stage.

Backpack

I put everything in here. I got it at a market in Mafraq, and it stood out to me because the cloth is traditional. I liked the colors and the design of the cloth.

Paints, tacks, brushes

We make a new set for each play. It takes a day or two, and the volunteers take care of everything — design, painting, and securing it to the wall. Sometimes the kids help with drawing.

The Things They Carried

The Refugee Puppeteer

Inside Zaatari Camp, one volunteer is on a mission to help war-weary children overcome their disabilities and fears with theater.

Interview and photographs by Alice Su

MAFRAQ, Jordan — Winter rain drizzled on the red dirt and metal trailers of Zaatari Camp as Hamzeh al-Hussein opened a storage room filled with puppets, instruments, speaker equipment, and boxes of glittery cardboard props. He was retrieving stage material for the play that Mark of Hope, a theater company in the camp, was putting on the next week. It would be a puppet show, and the set depicted a jungle where lions, giraffes, rabbits, and frogs sing about litter and waste. Al-Hussein would play the voice of a rabbit, while a 10-year-old named Ibrahim did the puppeteering. Ibrahim has a speech problem, al-Hussein explained, though he prefers to call it a “special need” rather than a disability.

“I hate this word, ‘disabled.’ It makes you feel like you’re a nonhuman,” al-Hussein said. The 23-year-old Syrian is a volunteer with the Fundacion Promoción Social de la Cultura, a nonprofit offering physiotherapy, rehabilitation, and theater. He fled southern Syria with his family in 2013, and they’ve been living in the camp — which is now home to some 80,000 refugees — ever since.

Al-Hussein’s responsibilities as a volunteer are myriad: transportation, coordination, assessment, playing the drums, painting sets, making props, and participating in the plays. It’s important to get families involved, too, he said, to counter social stigma against the disabled. “Many children who are handicapped leave school because of the way people treat them,” al-Hussein said. Some families lock their disabled children inside, feeding them daily but neglecting them otherwise, he said, because they are ashamed or afraid that they won’t be able to get their other children married. “The society acts like the handicapped child is not a person.”

Some of the plays have advocacy messages, but many are just for fun, to lift the kids’ spirits and build self-confidence. If a child can’t walk, he’ll get a role in a chair. If he can’t speak well, they’ll give him one line or a pantomiming role. The important thing is that they are active in the present, which helps them move past the trauma of war that’s only compounded by social exclusion. “I tell them, ‘You are children of today, not yesterday,’” al-Hussein said. “The children of Syria can open a new chapter. They are stronger than you think.”

Their first play, performed in 2014, touched on the problems facing children in the camp: early marriage, child labor, and lack of education. Al-Hussein’s favorite moment came at the end, when the “lights turn off and you hear everyone clapping and cheering,” he said. “The kids feel like they’ve done something. They are proud.”

To al-Hussein, who grew up with twisted fingers and stunted limbs, pity is worse than neglect. “The worst is when I walk across the camp and I hear old women saying, ‘Tsk tsk, ya haram, oh God,’ as if I am a shame,” al-Hussein said. He always carries a folder full of certificates from NGO-sponsored courses he’s taken over the past four years in everything from sign language to psychosocial support to inclusive theater to basic French, in case he meets someone who might help him find a scholarship outside of the camp. “All my future depends on education,” al-Hussein said. He managed to earn a high school certificate in the camp, but living in a trailer in the desert for so long with little hope of change has taken an emotional toll. He lies awake for hours every night thinking about the future. “In the worst case, I’ll go back to Syria or go on a smuggling boat, if only to study,” al-Hussein said. “It’s dangerous, but I’d rather take the risk than waste my future here.”

In front of the children, though, al-Hussein stays positive. “I tell them, ‘Disability is not physical. It’s mental. You have to dream. You have to be bigger than this.’”

A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of  FP magazine. Subscribe to FP Premium for 20 percent off now!

Vest — I’m a volunteer — I’ve worked for two years for free — but I wear this vest to be professional while I’m going around the camp. The pockets are also useful to carry my phone, money, and everything else.

Sign language dictionary — We decided to use sign language as another form of communication for the children. We put on a silent play to raise awareness about children who can’t hear or speak. We still review sign language so we won’t forget.

Props — We volunteers make props for every play. This one was a play about SpongeBob’s birthday, where all the kids attended his party and brought these gifts for SpongeBob. It’s a play about friendship. I was SpongeBob.

Speaker — The speakers are really important for music, which we choose specifically for each play. Usually they’re Arabic songs, sometimes very old, traditional ones — Syrian, of course. But sometimes we have thematic music.

Crutches — We use these for physical therapy. But on stage, we try not to use crutches. If a child needs them, we’ll give him a role in a chair. Then he feels more confident about not walking across the stage.

Puppets — Some of our kids are scared to talk on stage, but they’ll do it with a puppet. The animals dance too. At our next play, I’ll be the rabbit with Ibrahim. He’s 10 and can’t talk, but he’ll make the rabbit dance and I’ll be the voice.

Mission statement — I carry this to remember what we’re working for: to change social attitudes and to give the kids confidence and empower them. If a kid says, “I can’t write,” we say, “Take the pen and try. You’ll get stronger.”

Cell phone — I call the kids’ families the day before each rehearsal and before I pick them up. I have all their numbers saved here and on my laptop. It’s important to keep the parents informed so they trust us.

Sign — The name of the company is Mark of Hope. In Arabic we use the word basma, which means fingerprint, because everyone has a different fingerprint of hope in their lives.

Laptop — I use this to connect to the speakers for music during the plays. We try to use a lot of Syrian music, because we want to remember our heritage and because everyone loves to dance.

Backpack — I put everything in here. I got it at a market in Mafraq, and it stood out to me because the cloth is traditional. I liked the colors and the design of the cloth.

Paints, tacks, brushes — We make a new set for each play. It takes a day or two, and the volunteers take care of everything — design, painting, and securing it to the wall. Sometimes the kids help with drawing.

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