In the summer of 2014, I found myself at a Turkish-Syrian border gate controlled by the Islamic State.
It unfolded through a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., and the State Department, to visit Istanbul, Ankara and another Turkish city for 10 days. As part of the program, I was paired with a Turkish woman who lived in Urfa who worked with an NGO helping refugees in the eastern city of Akcakale. The sponsored program required that I develop a project.
As someone born and raised in the Middle East till I was 10 years old, I decided to report on how Syrian refugees were faring, living in camps along the Turkish-Syrian border. However, I wasn’t allowed into the refugee camps because, the day before I got there, the government had barred journalists from entering them. It was then that my Turkish counterpart suggested I visit the home of a displaced Syrian family nearby. This was just before the murderous public actions of the Islamic State became public. NGO officials warned me not to use social media or even to mention I was a journalist.
Right before meeting the family, however, a driver asked me if I wanted to see the “border.” It was then when I found myself at a gate controlled by the Islamic State. I watched as at least a hundred Syrian families–women, children and men–stood around, waiting to be let back into Syria. I asked the driver why they were going back. He told me they were going to settle debts, deal with their land and sell everything to come back into Turkey.
The next day, I learned that journalist Jim Foley had been beheaded by the Islamic State. I did not take this news lightly. I promised myself that even if my Syrian refugee project didn’t get off the ground, I would return to Turkey or the Middle East to report on the refugees who needed my voice. I had hoped to follow in Foley’s footsteps, since he was trying to show the world, especially the West, what was happening to millions of displaced families in Syria. Ultimately, my project couldn’t be published because even though I had compelling footage, no news outlet would publish information from a trip funded by the State Department.
What struck me the most about the seven Syrian kids I interviewed that day is that they had no access to education, classes or schools – they learned what they could at home, drawing figures in the mud or playing games. This reporting inspired me to think about how education and children are far too often collateral damage during a war.
I learned on my trip that amid the brutal landscape of war and poverty, there are stories that should be told about the lesser-known collateral damage: access to quality education for Syrian refugee kids. My passion lies in telling engaging, off-the-path stories on social issues, such as poverty and access for displaced people.
Photo: A view of the amphitheater in Petra, Jordan during a 2009 trip.