“I was in foster care in Mobile, and my family needed social services. Denise Riemer was my school social worker. She showed me there were good people in the world and that I was worth being cared for. She taught me that I should put effort into myself and that there was hope for a future that was better than my present.
There’s a good chance that I wouldn’t have lived through high school without Denise. If I felt like hurting myself or something, I knew Denise would be sad, so I didn’t do it. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll see Mrs. Reimer tomorrow and that will make me happy. I should stay alive.’
When I was applying for college, my university had never enrolled a foster student. We weren’t sure how to do it, and I didn’t have parents who could help me with the college application processes. Denise stepped and helped me get into college.
Because Denise helped me and gave me love when no one else did, I wanted to help others. I started noticing people in need and in the margins. That became working with Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan during the conflict that started in 2011. It hasn’t gotten any better in Syria. It snowed this week and we read about kids there who froze to death because they didn’t have a place to go.
Jordan has 672,000 registered Syrian refugees, but the real number is estimated to be much higher. The refugee camp is so large that it’s the third-largest city in Jordan. It’s breathtaking just driving by and thinking of the people living there. Many have been there for ten years. There are also refugees from Palestine and Iraq in Jordan. They all just want to go back to their countries and be safe.
The refugee camps are cities with supermarkets and some proper buildings. People try to sell things in little markets. The camp is a neighborhood where people are poor and live in tents. There’s no widespread running water. It snows in the winter, and the ground is mud. People walk and sleep in the mud because the roads and floors aren’t paved. Some have heaters, but they don’t heat for long and can be dangerous. There is electricity in some places, but it’s unstable and may get cut off. They have squatty potties, which are just smelly holes in the ground where you squat. Sanitation can be a big problem. Often they boil water and try to wash that way.
Most refugees want to go to places like the US, Europe, or Australia and wait many years for VISAs. There are immigration lawyers who help navigate the immigration process, but it’s usually just a game of luck and cutting through red tape. The vetting process is extraordinarily strict and the acceptance rate is low. There is growing resentment in Jordan as the influx of refugees puts more strain on the already overloaded infrastructure. The government is trying to make sure Jordanians have jobs first. That means freezing refugees out.
Generations of kids are growing up in the camps. They have some education opportunities, but it’s overcrowded and teachers aren’t trained on creating a positive learning environment for kids recovering from severe trauma. The kids that I see in the refugee camps have unimaginable stories, but they teach me about resilience. The conditions in these camps can be quite rough, especially in the winter. The kids are so excited about any attention they can get. The kids want to be loved. When we come, hundreds of kids run up and surround us. They just want to sit on our laps. We give them food and read stories, but hugging is a big part of what we do.
I wish everyone could look in the faces of these kids and see the hope these kids have for their future, but they have so little to accomplish it. These kids aren’t getting access to a good education. Jordan is a very poor country that doesn’t have much water or natural resources. It is trying to be welcoming to these refugees but can’t support these people like they deserve to be supported.
Because of COVID, I haven’t been able to go by the camps like I used to. I teach at Whitman Academy, a school that serves the children of relief workers serving the refugees. I teach English and AP literature. I am also directing this year’s play. My students are very concerned about the situation in Ukraine because they see up close what conflict like this causes.
I would love to open a school for refugees in Jordan and connect kids where they are and with the resources they need. I went to Murphy High School in Mobile and was in a math class with a girl from Libera. I am not good at math, but I tried to help her with factors. She couldn’t even count to seven, but they put her in Algebra 1 because she was 14. She wasn’t dumb;she just never had a chance to learn. What was the teacher supposed to do? The child couldn’t go back to first grade. These are the people I want to help.
There are so many people here, but I am trying to make small changes where I can. That goes back to Denise showing me you need just one good person in your life to make life survivable. I never thought I would get off the Parkway in Mobile. Now I can speak Arabic, and I’ve traveled around the world. All because Denise taught me to fight for myself. I try to teach my students the same thing.
I love being a part of a community that’s trying to make a difference. It’s more encouraging to live here and be in the midst of it than to live in America and know it’s happening and not doing anything. The world should pay more attention to the way we treat those who are marginalized and get to know refugee families. They have so much beauty to share.”