“I am Rania!”
A friend and I are sitting near the steps to Amman’s ancient Roman citadel when a bright-faced little
girl – no more than three feet tall – appears beside us. Tugging at my friend’s pant leg, the girl offers
a loud “Hello! How are you! I am Rania!” The words spill quickly from her mouth as her lips
blossom into a proud smile. She is obviously pleased about having addressed us in English and
begins twirling in circles playfully. “Where are you from, Rania?” My Arabic surprises her, and she
stops mid-twirl. “Syria,” she says, and continues to spin.
Rania, age eight, spends evenings at her family’s roadside snack stand with her barely-older sister just
outside the citadel’s entrance. I ask her about herself, and she happily tells me that her favorite color
is red, that she dislikes math and that her family is from Damascus, all while continuing to twirl in
circles. “And now seven of us live in one room,” she added abruptly yet unconcernedly.
My response, which I immediately regret, is an apologetic one. “Why are you sorry?” she asks,
confused by my change in mood. I say nothing, and so Rania continues to twirl and sway, this time
adding a song, the lyrics of which I cannot understand. I tell her that I too am a singer, and so she
patiently teaches me the words. Her song distracts me from my thoughts – about Syria, about other
children like Rania, and about the six other people with whom she shares a one-room home.
Rania is one of more than 140,000 Syrian children in Jordan, a demographic that comprises one-fifth of the total number of displaced Syrians in the Hashemite Kingdom. While most are urban refugees
that live in and around Jordanian cities, 165,000 Syrians have been accommodated in the country’s
No stranger to refugees like Rania and her family, Jordan maintains a longstanding tradition of
hospitality toward displaced persons that began with the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the nearly 2
million Palestinians that followed. More recently, masses of Iraqis entered Jordan after the 2003 US
Invasion of Iraq and today almost half of one million remain. Add to these dizzying numbers the
thousands of Sudanese and Somali families in-country and you are left with the highest
concentration of displaced persons relative to a country’s size found anywhere in the world.
I have come to Jordan to learn more about these communities, and to explore opportunities for how
musical engagement can be used to promote youth development in displaced children. In what is
primarily an outreach project, I am working in collaboration with local musicians and aid
organizations to establish or strengthen music-based programming for young refugees.
My project is led by two basic assumptions; namely, that music is a tool apt for promoting wellbeing
in youth, and likewise, that there exists a specific need within refugee communities for means and
modes of healing. While these are concepts that I believe in, they are also ones embedded with
presuppositions regarding the needs of displaced persons and the means appropriate for addressing
In the broadest of terms, my project raises questions about the delicate nature of “helping” across
boarders. International humanitarian programming and its associated aid economies represent a
complex world in which good intentions are easily lost in translation. As such, work of this kind demands that international actors examine how the process of entering another’s community and
culture can harm those they intend to help.
In my own work, I strive to understand how the cross-cultural community music practice interacts
with issues of cultural access, transaction and intrusion. In most societies, music is a practice for
defining and contesting cultural meanings, traditions and identities. This is especially true of
traditional children’s music, which can be used as a mode of socialization to promote specific values
and principles (“…one is silver and the other gold”; “…sweet land of liberty, for thee I sing”;
“…where seldom is heard a discouraging word”).
Thus, it remains a central priority in my programming efforts to find the necessary cultural
boundaries between ‘visiting and ‘trespassing’.
On Storytelling & Dignity
“The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A dominant narrative in media and international discourse about refugees in Jordan and its
neighboring countries is one of suffering. A Google news search of the keywords “Syria” “Jordan”
“Refugee” and “Children” returns several articles that refer to Syrian youth as a “lost generation”
rendered incapacitated by their trauma. Similar material was also published about Iraqi refugee youth
in the years following 2003.
My own experiences in Jordan challenge the narrative that narrowly confines displaced people to
their pain and suffering. This is not to say that media outlets exaggerate the abuses and difficulties
faced by many refugees, but rather that those negotiating such realities often do so with a sense of
dignity and resilience unacknowledged in depictions of total and utter desperation.
Throughout January, I helped to organize a series of songwriting workshops for Syrian and Iraqi
youth in collaboration with the Jordanian community music initiative Bmajor. The workshops used
an exercise that guides participants in writing the lyrics and harmony of a song without creative
input from session leaders.
Our first workshop was for a group of Syrian children and teenagers at Syria Bright Future, a refugee
community center in Amman. After hearing a short piece of live music, participants were asked to
reflect on their listening experiences and then find a common theme for the song’s title. Agreeing on
‘Aamal’, or hope, they went on to write the following piece:
My homeland is the sun of Freedom/ Love is the light of the sky/
The Children are the birds of the future/ Music is the voice of the stars/
Syria is earth’s HeavenHave patience for the hope of return!
A week later, we gave a similar workshop to a group of Iraqi teenagers at the Collateral Repair
Project (CRP) community center. Without input from workshop leaders, the group also chose to
title their piece ‘Hope’:
In this world, we see everything/ Maybe happiness, maybe sorrow or fear/
The journey of happiness starts with a smile/ in failure there is hope for success./
Music is the spirit of life.
Named the “Dream Group”, the teens in the video above gather each week at CRP to discuss topics
and issues that they find important or interesting. The group – which is predominately Iraqi, though
also includes Syrian and Jordanian teens – is several years old, and many of its members have been
coming to the center since they were little. Included among them is an accomplished visual artist,
two talented guitarists and a gifted writer. Several of them also volunteer regularly to help with
clothing and food voucher distributions at the center.
These wonderful young people have come of age in protracted displacement. Unable to work legally
or to obtain citizenship in Jordan, some of the teens at CRP come from families that are dependent
on the support of aid organizations for basic resources. Undoubtedly, their stories involve loss – loss
of home, of country and, often, of loved ones.
Yet it is a disservice to think of their stories as a one-dimensional narrative about loss, or to
represent them as a “lost generation”, for these young people are so much more than the sum of