On the job in DamascusStint with UNHCR in Syria opens Bardan's eyes to refugee issues
By: Jane Turpin Moore, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — If, in these first few weeks of class, a Worthington High School (WHS) teacher should ask senior David Bardan to write about what he did on his summer vacation, he won’t have to think twice about a topic.
And the essay might be unlike any other the teacher has ever read.
After all, how many WHS students have spent time serving international refugees with the United Nations?
From late July through mid-August, Bardan was in his father’s hometown of Damascus, Syria, spending 10-hour days as a humanitarian intern working side-by-side with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff at three different sites.
Using his Arabic language skills (he’s also fluent in English and Hungarian and is studying Spanish at WHS), Bardan spent his first few days assigned to the UNHCR’s local public information office, where he helped design the UN’s monthly report on Syria’s refugee situation. For the remaining time, he assisted with a mass distribution of school kits that ultimately reached 20,000 young refugees.
“Backpacks, pencils, school uniforms, books — all things required for school,” detailed Bardan, 17.
But the back-to-school process is a little different for youth who are Iraqi refugees than it is for Bardan, who grew up attending Worthington public schools since moving here with his parents, Bassel and Monika, in time to start first grade with the usual assemblage of colored folders, spiral notebooks and jumbo crayons.
“After seeing these people, actually being there and helping them, it changes the way you look at things and makes you want to do good things in life,” commented Bardan.
“It’s really sad; some of the kids are actually covered with dirt, and there are so many of them.”
From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Bardan said the stream of Iraqi refugees applying to receive the school kits seemed to rarely diminish. He estimates about 1,000 people daily — many also representing children and other family members — visited the sites at Douma and Bate Sahan where he worked.
“I was absolutely surprised at how many refugees were coming over (from Iraq to Syria, which share a border),” expressed Bardan. “In 2006, Syria had about 40 UN workers and now they have over 400 just to help with the refugees.
“Syria is currently the number one holder of Iraqi refugees, and it’s in the top 10 for worldwide refugees — it’s a pretty big mess.”
Damascus, a city of roughly eight million people, is crowded and bustling, and although Bardan had been there with his parents on a few other occasions over the years to see family — usually for visits of just a week or two — being thrust into action for hours a day and operating in a language you don’t speak all the time is another story.
“Yes, there was definitely some culture shock,” admitted Bardan with a smile, “but I think I must adjust quickly.”
Bardan explained that Iraqi refugees are admitted to Syria via two major camps, Al Tanf and El Hol. As of June, the UN counted 203,000 registered refugees in Syria, while the Syrian government estimates over one million non-registered refugees are living in the country.
“When the refugees first receive their UN paperwork, they must all list reasons why they deserve UN support,” said Bardan. “I saw people who had lost their entire families, and others who had death threats written against them. They might be getting threats from militia groups for having cooperated with the Americans, or they might have been involved in an industry for a party the militia didn’t support.
“So many of these people had lost everything and had only the clothes on their backs. If they didn’t have a chance to be in Syria, where else would they go?”
Bardan leaves the political assessment of this massive displacement of humanity to others, but notes that of the people with whom he spoke, the majority were just hoping for a new beginning and most of them indicated they would prefer to stay in Syria if they could.
“I think Syria is doing a great job, and it’s amazing how they’ve been willing to take in all these refugees, though of course it’s affecting the country economically and not everyone is happy they are there,” offered Bardan. “A lot of the UN workers were former refugees themselves, and they are really, really committed to helping.
“They are making a positive difference and working as hard as they can with the funds they receive,” continued Bardan, “but they are really lacking in dollars, especially given the number of people they are trying to serve.”
For the first portion of his time on the school kit project, Bardan worked on one of six computers, handed out vouchers for registration, directed traffic and assisted with the registration process. Later, he was involved in the physical distribution of the backpacks to the students, ages preschool through 12th grade.
“These people really needed it,” stressed Bardan of the project sponsored by UNHCR and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent — Syria’s equivalent of the Red Cross. “They were so appreciative, and the ultimate pay for me was seeing their happy smiling faces.”
An interest in international affairs pervades all aspects of Bardan’s life and extracurricular activities. Bardan’s father, Bassel, is a pediatrician at Avera Worthington Specialty Clinics and has many family members still living in Syria; his mother, Monika, is a native of Budapest, Hungary. A member of WHS’s National Honor Society, Bardan has participated in debate, speech, Knowledge Bowl, mock trial, student council and Business Professionals of America (BPA).
The latter activity took him to the BPA national competition in Reno, Nev., in June, where he competed in the categories of entrepreneurship (he’d hatched a plan for an online Aramaic Language Academy) and prepared speech (his was on globalization). In high school speech tournaments, Bardan competes in extemporaneous speaking, where he talks about international affairs.
“I like looking at the whole world,” said Bardan. “A lot of the things I do involve worldwide issues — that’s just something I’m interested in.”
Although at this time his college and career plans remain uncertain, Bardan expects to major in business and pre-law. “I’m really open to anything at this point,” he assured.
Before Bardan completed his humanitarian internship, some of his co-workers inquired if he would be willing to return next summer to join them for a longer period of time. Because he had a positive experience in the midst of human chaos and knows his efforts were appreciated, Bardan is giving that idea serious consideration.
“What I really felt afterwards is how privileged we all are,” stated Bardan. “Working through the UN, I believe I helped as much as I could as a 17-year-old.
“The actual work was hard, but I could really see the change we were making.”
For more information about the effort to support international refugees, go to unhcr.org. In addition, pbs.org has links to special features about Iraqi refugees in Syria, and a Bill Moyers Journal report of Sept. 28, 2007, discusses the Iraqi refugee crisis with NPR’s Deborah Amos and George Packer of The New Yorker.