Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo March 24, 2016

Reporter's Notebook: Mother's Day in Zaatari Refugee Camp


Media file: jordan_zaatari_spine_4.jpg


The Healing

One of the under-reported stories of Syria's Civil War is the deliberate targeting of hospitals by...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors
Media file: jordan_zaatari_girl_fling.jpg
Social worker Stacey Volkman launches a girl into the air while playing with children along with Jennifer Nitschke-Thomas (left) and JoAnna Balza (right) Sunday, March 20, 2016 at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan about 15 miles from the Syrian border. Image by Mark Hoffman. Jordan, 2016.

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan—Monday was Mother's Day in Jordan, and the mother inside the clinic at the Zaatari refugee camp was crying.

Her daughter had blacked out several times, she explained to Tarif Bakdash, the pediatric neurologist leading a Wisconsin mission to the clinic run by the Syrian American Medical Society. The girl, 8 years old, appeared to be having vision problems, spells when she would call out, "Mother, I can't see you." The mom's eyes reddened as she told the story.

The eyes of a worried mother look the same in any land.

But in Zaatari, they often reveal something in addition to the universal, wide-eyed alarm. There is a look of weariness, almost resignation. Too often a child's condition defies solution. Urgent or complicated surgeries cannot be done inside the camp. MRIs must be done outside the camp, but the cost is too great for many families.

In this case, though, the problem was not money or a lack of equipment. The little girl named Mayse (pronounced like the English word 'mice') never got used to the steady sound of bombs exploding in her village outside Daraa. She would cover her ears and run for the basement. Now, the family had fled to Zaatari, and it was the camp itself she could not get used to.

She hates the camp, her mother explains, weeping. The heat in summer caused her to throw up and darkened her skin.

"Are you kidding?" Bakdash told her gently. "In the states they pay good money to make their skin look like it was in the sun."

"God gave you a lot of gifts," the doctor said, smiling at the girl. "God gave you beautiful eye lashes. He gave you beautiful eyes. He gave you a beautiful nose.

"Would you trade with me? I'm white and I'm ugly. Would you trade with me?"

The child's tests looked good, the doctor told the mother. It was post-traumatic stress disorder.

"When there is bombing, we adults are afraid, too," Bakdash explained to the girl, bending to talk at her level.

He sent the mother and daughter to see a nurse and social worker who came with him on the mission from Wisconsin.

This was a smart girl, another doctor said. The worrisome symptoms were her way of trying to get the family to leave the camp.

So here it was: No pill could help the child. She would have to make do with the words of a social worker from a distant land.

Stacey Volkman, a social worker from Froedtert Hospital and mother of two, addressed the child:

"It's OK to cry. It's OK to be angry. It's OK to be scared. Sometimes bad things happen," she said. "It's important that you play with your friends, and hopefully things will get better and you will be able to go home. But right now you need to stay here until we can get you home safely."

Volkman leaned forward to hug Mayse's mother. She spoke to her as one mother to another.

"As a mother, I know that we want to protect our children," she said. "You are doing the best that you can."



war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues