As a Syrian woman living in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, Alaa Alqasem knows better than most the challenges refugees face
When war broke out in Syria back in 2011, Alaa Alqasem was a bright-eyed young student at Damascus University, passionate about her own education and excited about what the future might bring.
As violence escalated, Alaa was forced to flee with her family to Jordan, joining thousands of Syrian refugees displaced by the fighting.
As the war raged on and hope of returning home faded, Alaa refused to give up on her education.
“For the next few years, I looked for a scholarship, or anything that might help me to continue my studies,” she says, over a Zoom call from Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, where she still lives. “I volunteered with international NGOs for over five years, in health and various other thematic areas.” She also volunteered helping to find foster families for unaccompanied children. Eventually, her hard work paid off and she received a scholarship to study journalism at Zarqa University in Jordan.
“I gained a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and media with First Class honours... I was the top student in my class,” she says, with a smile.
Alaa’s success at university proved a springboard to other opportunities, including writing for Jordanian news organisations and representing the views of young refugees at regional conferences.
Alaa, aged 31, firmly believes in the power of storytelling to change lives. It’s also important to have refugee women like her working as journalists. She acts as a conduit allowing other refugees to share their stories.
During her decade in Zaatari, Alaa says she has heard hundreds of refugees’ stories. “At the beginning, I was impacted by every one of them,” she says. “But then I thought, someone has to do something [for them]. And when you do something to help, you’re able to find a balance between protecting your mental health while being able to support somebody. Helping really lifts that burden, lifts that pain.”
“Women are really strong, and they can be independent; they can support themselves and the communities around them,” she says. “I also write about refugees’ stories and education in order to reach the decision makers, the people who have the power to provide opportunities such as scholarships, for example, or support innovative ideas from refugees. These ideas aren’t only for refugees or the communities that host them; they are ideas for the whole world.”
Alaa worked as an independent radio journalist on a program called “Syrians Among Us” broadcast on Jordan’s Radio Al-Balad. That program was axed in February this year. She is now working for an aid organisation called Blumont.
Alaa says her university studies sharpened her belief in education, not only as a tool for improving the lives of refugees, but also educating the wider world on what young women like her can achieve, given the right encouragement and support.
“In my work with Blumont, one of UNHCR’s partners in Jordan, I have worked with protection and community-based teams to reach out to young girls, aged 12-17, about the importance of communication and expressing their minds,” she says. “It was about empowering them to always express their feelings and communicate what matters to them, to share their own stories. I’ve seen what happens to girls who aren’t aware of their rights.”
Alaa is continuing to work with Blumont, but hopes to one day return to studying. “I’d love to be able to take a Masters’ degree and then a PhD in journalism,” she says. “I’m interested in any opportunity to be able to learn more and contribute better.”
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