The color turquoise is associated with meanings/feelings of: refreshing, calming, sophisticated, energy, wisdom, serenity, wholeness, creativity, emotional balance, good luck, spiritual grounding, friendship, love, joy, and tranquility.
One picture changed it all for us: his red shirt and blue shorts hugging his body comfortably almost as though he was taking a casual nap on the beach. The image of three-year old Alan Kurdî ignited a whirlwind of emotions including sadness, anger, compassion, disgust, and most of all, an urgency to act. One question in my mind, “What is the difference between him and my son? Geography?”
Driven from anger to action, my dear friend, Forough Parvizian-Yazdani, and I cofounded Project Turquoise in November 2015. The project, named by our daughters, was formed to bring the traditional essence of turquoise to people around the world, providing wellness and education to all.
In a world where we hear of human suffering every day near and far, one wonders where to start. Who do I help first? A woman’s shelter in D.C. where the youngest resident is only 6 months old or do I pay attention to the issue of sex trafficking in Fairfax County? For those overwhelmed by the sheer amount of human suffering, I’d tell them, pick a cause, any cause, but do something.
The question I get when I speak of Project Turquoise is if I am Syrian, I respond; “No, I am human.”
Project Turquoise’s priority focused on providing support to Syrian refugees whose lives have been disrupted by the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. We’re now in the process of expanding our mission to strategically support those affected by conflict—wherever they are located. We have formed a steering committee and work as volunteers to raise funds and awareness in our community. We’ve partnered with Relief International, a leading international nonprofit whose work focuses on the elimination of human suffering across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. To date, we have raised more than $200,000, benefiting thousands, including: Syrian refugees living in Jordanian refugee camps, support medical clinics for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, and survivors of the recent earthquake along the Iran-Iraq border.
Click here for latest information on what we have accomplished up to date.
In addition to continuing our efforts to raise funds and awareness, our team arranged for Project Turquoise’s first service trip to Jordan—a trip that opened our eyes to the true magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. Our group of eight consisted of five highly-skilled dentists from the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) area who graciously donated their expertise, materials, and time to our mission, utilizing their specialized talents to provide advanced dental treatments to Syrian refugees.
Click here for a short video of our trip; courtesy of Hamid, Kazemi, DDS.
My travel to Jordan proved to be the most meaningful trip of my life where I saw the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. From happy & oblivious children to the emotionless faces of adults, I was once again impressed with human resilience and the power of dignity. It is sad to be poor in your own country, but it is a completely different level of misery to reside in a refugee camp with an unknown future and living a life one is not accustomed to.
I met Syrians who were teachers, musicians, engineers, and doctors in their home country. While I salute the Jordanian government for housing the refugees, the conditions of the camps left much to be desired. As you drive up, all you see is barbed wire and small white caravans as far as the eye can see. It is not legal to plant trees or vegetation due to security threats. Hence, there is not much color, life, or a sense of community. The atmosphere is arid, lifeless, and ensures you know your welcome is temporary.
The NGOs that operate under the direction of UNHCR are the everyday heroes for the residents of these camps. Our partner, Relief International (RI), is licensed to operate in the Jordan’s Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps as educators. They have established Makanis (residences) and offer a range of supplemental education activities to complement the kids’ daily schooling. Jordan offers half-day schooling to refugee children—girls in the mornings and boys in the afternoon. RI hosts boys in the morning and girls in the afternoon.
RI Makanis offer enrichment classes in Arabic and English, math, music, arts & crafts, and hang-out places. They also offer psycho-social support and counseling. One special feature about Makanis are their social innovation labs where teens can hang out, play chess and other board games, learn, discuss social issues, develop solutions, and sometimes make products.
Click here for a short video on how RI is helping the refugee youths cope and learn.
From drawings and artwork to actual products developed by students, I found the social innovation labs to be a place where a traumatized teenager can realize his/her potential and can use their imagination to escape the hardships of reality. And also see themselves as creators of their own futures.
My friend, Marjan Ehsassi and I, held focus group sessions with boys and girls separately where we engaged them in conversations about the power of education, hope, their dreams, their needs, and their goals. Their stories of hope and resilience are admirable.
I met many people and heard many stories. The recurring theme from people of all ages: remember us!
While all stories were unique and memorable, there are a few I will never forget:
- A 15-year-old girl had fled Hama, Syria overnight when her father, an English teacher, was approached by an ISIS member to ask him for her hand in marriage. The next day, they were at the Jordanian border. She told me in perfect English, “I will persist until I succeed.” She is a good student and is hoping to be accepted to a local university. This young girl is also part of a team that had invented a washing machine using a trash can and recycled motor.
- I watched ad-hoc soccer games in the heat of desert. Kids would take off their often small/plastic shoes and play bare feet. It was so hot that I could not stay more than 2-3 minutes under the desert sun. They seemed happy and content.
- I met set of 16-year-old twin boys, they were smart and eloquent. One had invented a projector using a shoe box and a magnifying glass, so they can watch movies using their iPhone at night. Four teens in that household share an iPhone. The social innovation labs had some of their drawings on the wall as well. Many of their drawings demonstrated social suffering for these residents: child labor, child marriage, and woman’s right were amongst the topics covered by their paintings. We asked to visit a home of one of these refugees and they quickly accepted. We visited the twins’ home that afternoon in their small aluminum caravan where we met their mother, a teacher. She had a job at the Jordanian school teaching. We were served ice cold water (a scarcity at the camp) and were greeted by their polite children. Two caravans, two single mothers, and nine kids under 17. Not all could go to school as help was needed to take care of some of the orphan children of their family. The lady of the house did not allow us to leave until we had Turkish coffee. As we were leaving their house, I gave her my scarf as a souvenir, she held my hands with both of her hands, thanked me and asked me to come and visit her again at my next trip. She said I’d be welcome in her house and she would put us on her eyes and made a gesture with her hands on her eyes, a very eastern and hospitable gesture. The family I met were proud and hopeful, had dignity, and class. I do wish they can settle somewhere in peace and hope her kids continue their education. Click here for an Al Jazeera reporting on how these boys are staying productive given the adversarial situation they are in.
- A 17-year-old girl with a full veil on her face stopped by at my desk as couple of us were getting tooth brushes ready for the dentists. She asked me about what I do and why I am there. She did speak English well enough to communicate with me. She went on to tell me that I looked kind and she had a favor to ask me: “Please make me a promise. Promise me, you will not forget me.” I asked her to lift off her veil, so I can see her or take a selfie. She said, her culture didn’t allow for that. She hugged me and said, “Promise me you will remember me with your memory.” Her name was Yasmin.
- On the last day of the service trip, our dentists along with the Jordanian dental residents taught oral health and proper tooth brushing to over 500 children. The children were given tooth brushes and tooth paste and got varnish applied on their teeth. As part of youth educations, the clinicians educated the top performing teens who in turn educated small children.
- I found Jordan and the Syrians they host to be people of dignity, compassion, hospitality, and resilience. Before I left for Jordan, my husband was worried that the trip would impact me so much that I would come back depressed and down. I, too, was concerned about it.
Memories of children’s hopeful eyes and the adults’ grateful glances warm my heart. While my contributions to remedy the atrocities in the region is a drop in the ocean, I am proud of what our team accomplished, and I feel more complete as a person.