BOISE — What happened was, she raised her hand.
Without even thinking, she volunteered, and if you ask why, what swirls in her memory are the faces of thousands of children.
Six times now, Cheri Jorgenson has traveled, at her own expense, to the borders of Lebanon and Jordan to help run an educational camp for Syrian children. These are children whose families — more than 4.5 million people — have fled the country because of war.
She says: “Helping a child to have hope for the future. And a future that will help all of us in turn.”
Syrian families might find some semblance of safety and shelter and food in refugee camps and communities on the other side of their homeland. But education becomes a luxury, compared to survival.
“The theme has always been empowering the future of Syria. Doing this through art, through music, through sports, through team building.”
In many cases, these children have been out of school for years — idle minds, fertile ground for mischief or worse. And that sears her soul.
So twice a year (she leaves again in March), Cheri joins two dozen other international volunteers who go to areas not served by United Nations relief programs, and provide one day — one day — where children can be children. And they can learn.
“(We want to show children) that there are people who still care about their future and their demise. (To give them) hope that there will be a country to go back to — (although it) is harder and harder even for us to hold to that hope.
“And (to give them) hope that the future will be better for them.”
The camp is called Project Amal Ou Salam. Project Hope and Peace.
The work is exhausting. In Beirut, the volunteers gather for a day of preparation and go by bus each day into the communities near the border; once a year in Jordan and once a year in Lebanon. Then there are intense, 12-hour days, teaching 200 or 300 children each day for five days, providing meals for everyone. Each class is led by a couple of volunteers, one of whom is an Arabic speaker; the camps are held wherever they can find space — a school, a field, an apartment complex.
“(In Shatila), the Palestinian refugee camp, we’re in these high-rise buildings with very little space, no air conditioning, no heat, very little running water; pretty dire, poor conditions. And we just have to make do with what we have.”
Each camp is divided into classes — art, health, music, team building and sports, health and wellness, photography — and the kids into age groups, from very young to teenagers.
“Technically they’re supposed to be 5, but we often have 2- and 3-year-olds and we even diaper change if needed. Because it’s really hard to say no to the siblings when they come.”
Hand puppets, which the kids adore (and which were made by a Boise puppeteer), help open up sensitive topics for kids who have been traumatized. Cheri uses stuffed dinosaurs (with big teeth) donated by Boise dentists to teach about brushing teeth. They talk about hand-washing and oral hygiene and nutrition — all interconnected things that most kids learn at home when parents are not preoccupied by survival.
“We have gone back to the same areas each time, so we’ll see, sometimes, the same kids. And they’ll come up to us and say, ‘I have waited all year. This is the best day of my life.’
“I mean, it’s heartbreaking. To think that our little camp is ‘the best day.’ That this is the best their life has to offer right now.”
Some of the teachings are lessons in life.
“What we’re trying to give them is tools ... to take back to Syria when they rebuild their country.”
For instance, there’s the photography class. The kids share a digital camera to document the other classes. But in the toolbox of making good photographs — along with light and composition and exposure — is perspective. That is a philosophy as well as a tool. And they talk about that.
“If you are looking at (something) on the table, and you’re looking at (it) from the side, you’re seeing it differently than if you were a drone looking at it from above.
“So trying to relate that to their everyday life: How are Jordanians looking at you as a Syrian? Are you taking their jobs, are you pushing them out of their schools, are you creating crime? Looking at it from the perspective of a refugee — and looking at it from all different perspectives. ...
“We (are) always about giving the kids some kind of hope for peace and skills to take back — so that they become the future of Syria to help rebuild it.
“And rebuild it in a way that’s tolerant, that is inclusive, that is global in perspective.”
Cheri grew up in a middle-class family in Los Angeles, to young parents who loved to travel. So they did: Mexico, Mexico City, Tijuana; England, Ireland, Spain. It wasn’t exotic travel, but it was enough.
“My eyes were opened. ... Seeing that there were people who lived differently than me.”
When Cheri, her husband and children moved to Boise, it was important for them to continue to intersect with people of different cultures.
“We live in a globalized world. I personally believe that the more open you are, the easier life will be for you.
“And conversely, the more close-minded you are, the more more difficult life will be for you. Your corner of the world will become (increasingly) smaller.”
As a family, they’ve traveled to South America, North Africa, Mexico, Canada. The kids grew up going to bilingual schools and have studied abroad. A life-long language learner herself, Cheri speaks Italian, French and Spanish, and is a master’s student at Boise State University learning Arabic.
“To me, (learning a language) is just opening up the world.”
Today, Cheri also volunteers at the International Rescue Committee, one of Boise’s three resettlement agencies, where she teaches the U.S. government-mandated cultural orientation class for all newly arriving clients. She also teaches a weekly job class designed to help refugees navigate, search, land and keep a job here in Boise.
“By being born (in America), I am privileged. By being white, I am privileged. …
“To me, we have a moral obligation to try to make life a little better for others who weren’t as lucky as us. … I have a huge responsibility to provide for those who were not given the same opportunities I was given.”
In job class, Cheri’s experience in the border refugee camps helps her explain to newly arrived Boise refugees how their lives have changed. For instance, Syrian refugees in Lebanon might have to beg for the rest of their lives; it is illegal for them to work.
“(But) the moment you step down in the United States, you are legally able to work.”
And in Boise, refugee children can go to school.
“If you ask (any refugee about) their hopes and dreams, every single one of them who has kids (will say): ‘I want my children to have an education.’ Every single one of them. Because they know that education is the ticket to a better life. They know that much. ...
“When we take away the labels, I firmly believe that each and every person that walks the face of the Earth has the basic desires and goals in life — the same things: to provide for their families and to be free to make choices for themselves, and to be happy.
“And, of course, have their basic needs met, and doing that by providing for themselves. I think given a choice, everyone would rather provide for themselves than have someone provide for them.”
Not all people will think that what Cheri does is a good idea — helping strange people in cultures we don’t understand and who we think might want to hurt us. That bothers her.
“We could live our entire life thinking all Syrians are bad — and Syrians could live their entire life thinking all Americans are bad. But in our globalized world … as our world really gets smaller because of technology, it just becomes more and more problematic if every ‘other’ is a bad guy. ... ”
“Other” means seeing people in terms of divisions: different languages, different religions, different cultures.
“For me, the only ‘other’ is those we don’t know. And we don’t know them because we, personally, haven’t taken the time to get to know them. I think it’s our individual responsibility to learn about ‘the other.’ ...
“What I think of even more, in light of the (president’s) executive orders, as opposed to making ourselves safer, we’re creating more distance from the possibility of building bridges of understanding between one another.”
And where it might seem odd for a middle-aged white woman from Boise, Idaho, to go to the Middle East, in fact, she is an ambassador.
“My presence in a Middle East country is normalizing relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims. The more we stay apart and separate, the more we perpetuate these notions, these crazy ideas, that all Muslims are terrorists. ...
“By my learning about them and them learning about me, I’m actually doing the opposite: I’m teaching them that WE are not all terrorists and that we’re not all bad guys.”
She thinks about the thousands of children she’s met at the camp — and she thinks about what they can teach others.
“They come in with fear and with this, what I call, sense of the ‘other’ — these walls and barriers — us and them. And by the time they walk out, they’re laughing, they’re smiling, they might be holding hands … and we’ve broken down this ‘otherness.’
“We’re all one in the camp and the workshop. ...”
Besides the camp, Project Amal Ou Salam also funds an underground center in Aleppo, Syria, a safe place where children can learn, play and put aside the sound of war, even for a few moments. In recent days, however, even that was not a safe place, and with emotion choking her voice, Cheri said she could not know if the teacher there was alive from one day to the next, one hour to the next.
“I think about these children in Syria that are being bombed right now. Could that be the next cancer drug that was embodied in this child that was just annihilated by this bomb? … We have no idea. Given the opportunity though, we might find out. …
“We’re going on six years that these kids have been out of country; actually longer for some of them. It’s quite possible that these kids will never return to Syria; that they are just going to eke out a life in Jordan or Lebanon. …
“Our hope is that we’ve planted enough seeds. That it’s exponential and they then become change-makers for the kids around them.
“That’s the hope. That (these children) build a better future — for all of us.”