A Syrian Dream: A bus across through dessert to a refugee camp changed a young American’s career goals.
He squeezed his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame into the 70’s era former-school bus now part of the Jordanian public transportation system. His knees rubbed against the seat in front of him and nearly smothered the passenger next to him with his overflowing mass. Compared to his 5-foot-8, average-build Jordanian companion, he appeared to be a colossus—a hulk. Under the hat, multiple scarfs, and sunglasses, his fair off-white complexion shone through. He was not only the largest person on the bus he was the only American. The hulking American, Stephen Sydor, and average-build Jordanian, Hyder Alawneh, rode the bus for an hour from Irbid to Alawneh’s hometown of Mafraq. The tight quarters and archaic suspension left the two beaten and bruised by the bumpy roads, but brought the two travelers closer to the end of a long-awaited adventure to see the Zaatari Refugee Camp.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established the Zaatari Refugee Camp in July of 2012 to house displaced Syrians. As the chaos and violence escalated in Syria, the camp of about 100 families grew to a 130,000-person tent-metropolis and Jordan’s fourth largest city. The BBC estimates the United Nations spends over $500,000 dollars a day just to buy bread and water for the residents of the camp.
Yarmouk University, the school Sydor and Alawneh attended assigned the two as roommates eight weeks earlier. They had very little in common except for a strong interest in politics and curiosity in the Syrian conflict. Alawneh studied Geographic Information Systems, and Sydor studied Arabic while enrolled in the SU Abroad Program. After a somewhat uneasy introduction because of the apparent language barrier, the two became friends asking one another countless questions about the other’s favorite sports (hockey v. soccer) and taste in music (country v. middle eastern pop).
Sydor never intended to study in Jordan, but SU Abroad closed all the other study-abroad programs in the Middle East. SU Abroad Counselor Debbie Goddard says the University suspended the World Partner Programs in Lebanon and Egypt (Sydor’s first and second choices) because of liability issues following the political strife and violent uprisings caused by the Arab Spring.
After the long, uncomfortable bus ride, the first leg in adventure to witness the historic the aftermath of the Arab Spring the two arrived at Alawneh’s home. Hyder’s family greeted Sydor with open arms (literally), a warm pot of tea, and a traditional middle-eastern feast of rice and lamb even a man his size could not finish. After the meal, Alwneh and Sydor drove the family’s car about 10 miles outside of the city to see the camp. “I expected something you see on the news, but it wasn’t horrible. There were white tents for as far as you could see.” Sydor says. Hundreds of crap-green Jordanian military vehicles surrounded the tent-city. The refugees went in and out of the camp with special passes, but outsiders were not allowed in because of the lawlessness in the refugee city.
“Going to the refugee camp showed me more of the daily struggles and realities that the people faced. It made the realities of war more real. You could never imagine things like this happening in the United States ” Sydor says. The Zaatari Refugee Camp was far away from the small western New York town Sydor grew up in—5,804 miles to be exact. Sydor described Lewiston, New York, a Niagara Falls suburb, as the typical 2,500-person, homogenous small town—with almost no connection to the Middle East. Sydor’s older brother Aaron described Stephen as a typical student during high school. His life revolved around football and hockey, but he became interested—almost obsessed with the Middle East toward the end of high school after learning about US foreign policy in the Middle East in a world history class.
Sydor now lives in Washington D.C., where he is enrolled in the Maxwell-in DC-program and works for the PLO Delegation as a media relations intern. He talks to Hyder via Facebook and plans to travel back to Jordan. One of the biggest things Sydor took away from his trip abroad was his career plan. “In high school I wanted to work for government, and it seemed like a logical fit to study the Middle East, but now I am more interested in journalism,” Sydor says. During his time abroad, he wrote a column for the Daily Orange that detailed his experiences ranging from religious diversity in Lebanon to Jordanian cuisine.
Sydor left the Middle East over six-moths ago, but still talks about his time there daily. Give him a few drinks (a habit he picked up while abroad) and he will be sure to whip out his phone and drown anyone in a barrage of pictures and stories about his adventures abroad.