After eight years of service, I handed over leadership of the North Carolina Department of State Treasurer on Dec. 31 and, less than 36 hours later, boarded a flight for Amman, Jordan.
I spent the next three weeks hosted by a nonprofit called QuestScope working with Syrian refugees in the Za’atari refugee camp as well as refugees surviving as best they could in cities and towns across Jordan. In late February and early March, I volunteered helping Syrian refugees to build new lives in Berlin, Germany.
On Tuesday, I’m hosting a luncheon in Raleigh to share my experiences with Syrian refugees in Jordan and raise money on their behalf. I’ve been overwhelmed by the interest of my fellow North Carolinians in Syrian refugees and the generosity of their financial support. We had to start turning people away after 200 attendees registered.
It was for people like Mustafa and Rania that I did this work.
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Mustafa is in his late 20s. He once was a foot soldier in Syria’s civil war. In 2013, he put down his weapon and escaped across the border. Now he lives in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp.
Refugee life may sound like an improvement for Mustafa because he is no longer in mortal danger. I have seen firsthand, though, that people need a sense of purpose almost as much as they need safety and shelter.
As the months wore on behind walls topped with barbed wire and a monotonous daily routine, Mustafa felt life was passing by him. He began to believe that it would be better to go back to fight in the war. It didn’t matter which side of the gun he was on – behind the gun pulling the trigger or on the receiving end of the barrel – as long as he wasn’t rotting away in the camp.
Luck had it that Mustafa found a job as a teacher in the camp before he took that step. Working alongside peers and mentoring youth helped him rediscover his own humanity. It gave him a sense of purpose.
We need the Mustafas of the world to have constructive outlets for their dreams and ambitions. Security experts often talk about this in terms of preventing terrorism and civil war. My background has more of an economic and financial theme, and so I think about the opportunities more in those terms.
As North Carolina’s State Treasurer from 2008-16, I invested the state’s financial assets, including in innovative ventures coming from Main Street communities across our state, and oversaw the debt that finances local governments’ economic development programs. I encountered people like Mustafa all the time while doing this work. Their innovation, energy and persistence was the root of every success, even though they usually had names like Tracy, Damien and Colleen here.
The untapped potential in Za’atari and refugee camps like it could be world-changing.
We also need the women and girls to have the same constructive outlets as Mustafa. Women make up well over half of the refugee population, and many of them have just as much potential.
At an informal education center for refugee children and youth in the southern Jordanian city of Aqaba, I met a 15-year-old teenager named Rania. As I talked with her and her classmates through an interpreter, Rania immediately stood out to me as bright, articulate and ambitious. She dreamed of being a lawyer and a judge.
She also recognized the obstacles. Many of the burdens of statelessness that children bear are common, like having to hustle for money on the street because families lack the permits needed to work. But girls have even more hurdles to overcome. I asked the interpreter what Rania’s prospects were. He said she would be pressured to get married soon and would probably have a hard life.
I’m reminded of a comment Bill Gates made to an audience in Saudi Arabia: “If you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top.”
Syrian refugees are nowhere near the top. They’re at the very bottom. Right now, the idea of education and employment, even in the limited sense of Mustafa’s opportunity, is far beyond the reach of many refugees, particularly the women and girls. Still, the spirit of Gates’ idea is equally true for them.
I believe that we all are better off when Mustafa and Rania and those like them can participate in the economy and the community.
That doesn’t mean I have the answers for how to make that happen. It’s a startlingly difficult problem without easy answers. But I insist that it matters, both to them and to us.
We all understand that necessity is the mother of invention. The innovation that refugees could bring to the world economy are as dramatic as the trials they have endured.
Janet Cowell is the former North Carolina State Treasurer. Support Mustafa, Rania and other Syrian refugees by making a donation to QuestScope at QuestScope.org.