Two weeks in Jordan and Lebanon with Syrian refugees

Almost a decade ago, while working at The St. Petersburg Times, I traveled regularly to the Middle East and other far flung places on assignment.

Sometimes the work was risky, often unpredictable but it was always exciting. The experiences have been the best education of my life.

Some of the most memorable trips include; Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power; three journeys inside Saudi Arabia; refugee camps in Macedonia; an encounter with secret police in Qatar; trying to explain our way out of Syria without an entry visa and the many, many excursions to my two favorite cities, Jerusalem and Istanbul. 

The constant in these assignments has been the complication and sometimes utter confusion of working in places that have deep rooted conflict. The shining light and the thing I'll remember is the people. I was reminded of this in September when Oregonian colleague Rich Read and I traveled to Jordan and Lebanon for a series of stories about the Syrian refugee crisis. After more than 31 months of civil war more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed, more than 4 million are homeless and two million are refugees.

This was my first trip to the Middle East since working inside Iraq during war-time about a decade ago. 

At an overworked school in Mafraq, Jordan, I was reminded how quickly the feeling of helplessness can sweep over a country, a neighborhood, a family or a person. I was also reminded of the strength some have during these times.

The lessons came from a class of ninth grade Syrian girls who are coming of age during war.

Roqaya lost both parents and two siblings in a massacre in Homs. Three of Batool's cousins were killed by snipers. Julanar longs of the the songbird that flew outside her window. Some live now is orphans in Jordan, all lost something during the war in their country. Still the girls are filled with desire to educate themselves and return to Syria as doctors, lawyers or builders and make their country whole again.

Their faces, their voices and their stories will remain with me forever. My hope is that some of their spirit is in me too.

At Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

At Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

A playground at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

A playground at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

New refugees from Syria arrive to Jordan.

New refugees from Syria arrive to Jordan.

Syrian refugees are processed into Jordan before being sent to the Zaatari refugee camp.

Syrian refugees are processed into Jordan before being sent to the Zaatari refugee camp.

Syrian children sleep in Jordan as refugees after arriving from a multi day exodus from Syria.

Syrian children sleep in Jordan as refugees after arriving from a multi day exodus from Syria.

Water is delivered to Syrian refugees inside the Zaatari camp in Jordan.

Water is delivered to Syrian refugees inside the Zaatari camp in Jordan.

Water is delivered to Syrian refugees at the Zaatari camp in Jordan.

Water is delivered to Syrian refugees at the Zaatari camp in Jordan.

Syrian refugees move a house through the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Syrian refugees move a house through the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

A discarded shoe at a makeshift refugee camp for Syrians in Lebanon.

A discarded shoe at a makeshift refugee camp for Syrians in Lebanon.

Wedding dresses for rent inside Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Wedding dresses for rent inside Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

A discarded bra outside a former chicken coup that now houses Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

A discarded bra outside a former chicken coup that now houses Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Sisters, now refugees from Syria, at their home in Jordan.

Sisters, now refugees from Syria, at their home in Jordan.

This woman to a taxi back into the war in Syria to have her leg amputated. It was the only way her family could afford the operation.

This woman to a taxi back into the war in Syria to have her leg amputated. It was the only way her family could afford the operation.

Syrian children wait to see a doctors from the US and Europe at a refugee camp in Lebanon.

Syrian children wait to see a doctors from the US and Europe at a refugee camp in Lebanon.

A girl who lost both her parents in the fighting in Syria sees a doctor in Jordan.

A girl who lost both her parents in the fighting in Syria sees a doctor in Jordan.

Syrian children at a refugee camp in Lebanon show their sores, brought on by lack of clean water and bathing.

Syrian children at a refugee camp in Lebanon show their sores, brought on by lack of clean water and bathing.

Martina Ford, a nurse from Portland, Oregon, shares her medical equipment with children at a refugee camp in Lebanon.

Martina Ford, a nurse from Portland, Oregon, shares her medical equipment with children at a refugee camp in Lebanon.

Syrian refugees play games at an after school clinic operated by Portland-based Mercy Corps in Lebanon.

Syrian refugees play games at an after school clinic operated by Portland-based Mercy Corps in Lebanon.

Syrian refugees play games at an after school clinic operated by Portland-based Mercy Corps in Lebanon.

Syrian refugees play games at an after school clinic operated by Portland-based Mercy Corps in Lebanon.

Ice cream delivery at a refugee camp in Lebanon.

Ice cream delivery at a refugee camp in Lebanon.

Two week old toe nail polish at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Two week old toe nail polish at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Refugee children at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Refugee children at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

A picture from home, on the phone of a Syrian refugee now living in Jordan.

A picture from home, on the phone of a Syrian refugee now living in Jordan.