Abed Elmajeed Noaimi, Translator, Za’atari refugee camp for Syrian refugees, Jordan
How would you describe your job to a five-year-old?
This is how I’d describe my job to a five-year-old in Za’atari: I work for UNICEF as a translator. A lot of visitors come to your school here, and they sometimes want to talk to you and to other children but they can’t because they don’t speak Arabic like you. When they need to talk to you, I’m the guy who makes that possible, who translates between them and you.
Describe how you became involved with UNICEF.
Before working for UNICEF, I was with another organisation in the camp. I saw UNICEF’s work and got to know what they do, and I was impressed at the wonderful support they provide for people. I really wanted to get involved, so I applied for a similar job with UNICEF. They contacted me and accepted my application so I started working with UNICEF over a year ago.
What has been the most challenging moment?
The most challenging moment is when I see children out in the street during school hours. I try to talk to them and get them to go back to school. It’s so difficult, for many reasons. Some are too shy to talk to strangers. Sometimes they’re too afraid because they’re not used to travelling big distances to get to school in such a crowded place, with all the grown-ups moving around and selling things. And at other times, it’s difficult to convince parents to send their children to school as they’re still getting used to life in the camp and they don’t think that it’s in their best interest. Unfortunately they don’t know how important it is to get an education and that if children lose one or two years of study, it’ll be very difficult for them in the future. That’s a big challenge for me – trying to convince families or children to go back to school.
Describe a moment when you’ve seen the impact of your work on a child.
There’s a girl called Safa in the camp, and I needed to talk to her and her family. The girl survived a bomb attack back in Syria and she lost her leg. She was traumatised and was afraid of everyone besides her family. It was difficult to get her to interact with us, to tell us anything. So I started playing with her and I gradually got her to trust and speak to me. I believe that was my biggest impact – bringing a girl who was traumatised out of her shell.
What is it about your job that wakes you up in the morning and motivates you to work?
I’ve worked in so many jobs before this one and I get bored quite easily, But working here in the camp is a different experience. When you work in a supermarket or a bank, it’s the same routine and you don’t have anything new. Nothing makes you feel good about yourself. Here inside the camp, it’s different. You wake up in the morning, you see challenges, you see people in need. I grew up in Syria and lived with these people (the refugees) for a very long time. It’s not the money that you get from the job – when you see that you’re making a difference in people’s lives, it’s a great feeling and that’s my motivation.
What’s the most scared you’ve ever been?
When I lived in Syria I used to work in construction. One time I was working on a balcony. All of a sudden, all hell broke loose and people started shooting randomly everywhere : two sides were shooting at each other and I was caught in the crossfire. I ran and hid in the middle room of the house, underneath a sink. It was the safest place. I stayed there for two hours until the shooting stopped, and when I got out I drove home on the highway. There were shops on either side of the road selling used furniture, and they were all on fire. I looked beside me and saw a pickup truck with a family inside. I will never forget the sight of this woman’s face who was crying and grabbing hold of her children. She was really scared, and I was as well. That’s the scariest situation I’ve ever been in.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges that children in Za’atari face?
There was a little boy who came to the camp with his family. His parents returned to Syria and left him in the custody of his uncle. His uncle was broke and he tried forcing the child to sell chewing gum for a living on the street. The boy refused, saying he didn’t want to abandon his education. He wanted to study so he could get a good job. The boy ran away and came to an organisation here called IRC who work with separated and unaccompanied children. They found him a foster family and he’s now living with them and going to catch-up classes to make up for the time he lost being out of school. That’s the biggest challenge for children here in the camp. Sometimes they’re forced to work instead of going to school.
If you had an extra day off, how would you spend it?
Because I work in the camp, I sometimes don’t get home til late. I get very tired so I don’t get to go and see my relatives in Mafraq. They’ve been very good to me and I don’t think I spend enough time with them right now. So if I had an extra day off, I’d go visit them and see how they are.
What do people not know about your job that you wish they did?
I used to see people who work for the United Nations from a distance – foreigners who speak five languages! I used to think they worked like clockwork, emotionless, and that that they weren’t like me. But when I started working for UNICEF all that changed. The people in my team are so caring and nice to each other. They give me advice and good moral support. I wouldn’t trade working for UNICEF for any other job in the world.
What have been the biggest frustrations in your career, and how have you dealt with them?
Sometimes people in the camp tell me stories about themselves, and I feel terrible. I remember this old lady, about 80 years old. She had three children and two of them were in the camp with her, and she told me her story. They had a house with a barn in Syria, and the house was raided. Her husband and son escaped from the house to the barn, but they were found and killed. I hardly ever cry, but when the old woman told me this story, I really cried. I’d reminded her of the past and she started crying again, she was very old – she reminded me of my mother. My biggest frustration was that I couldn’t do anything. What happened was so horrible that whatever I did could never make up for the loss she suffered. That was the most frustrating moment I’ve ever had here in the camp.
Who do you look towards as a mentor, for inspiration?
When I was in college, I also worked as a delivery boy for a supermarket to earn money for my family and to pay for my studies. A woman that I used to deliver for saw me wearing my college uniform one day and found out that I was studying to be a tour guide. She was impressed and she started giving me advice. Every time I went to deliver to her, she’d sit down and talk to me for 10-15 minutes, telling me: ‘you’re going to have a great future. You’re going to do well because you’re trying!” She was a great woman who inspired me and gave me confidence to pursue my dream, to become the man I am today.