P.E.I. women travel to Jordan to talk to Syrian refugees

Two women from P.E.I. spent 8 days in Jordan talking to Syrian refugees as part of an upcoming book for young readers.

'Help children here understand that Syrian child who sits next to them in the classroom'

Sharon McKay and Susan Benton Hartley at a school in a refugee camp in Jordan. (Submitted by Susan Benton Hartley)

They live on Prince Edward Island but their passion for social justice and peace takes them around the world, most recently to Jordan, to talk to Syrian refugees.

Sharon McKay is a young adult (YA) writer whose books have covered conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and child soldiers in Uganda. Susan Benton Hartley is a Rotary peace fellow and a consultant in peace building and conflict studies.

A conversation about Hartley's recent time at the Rotary Peace Centre in Bangkok led to an invitation to travel to Jordan.

"I was chatting with Sharon and she was saying her next book project was about the Syrian refugee migration and she wanted to do both sides of the trail so she had gone to Toronto to interview resettled Syrian refugees," explained Hartley.

Sharon McKay and Susan Benton Hartley spent hours speaking with Syrian refugees, including children, during their 8 days in Jordan. (Submitted by Susan Benton Hartley)

Hartley had contacts from her peace fellowship, and helped McKay get in touch. One thing led to another and the two were winging their way to Amman, Jordan.

'I have to go there'

For McKay, meeting the refugees in person was crucial.

"All of the books I write, and I only write about social justice, are always based in the country that the story takes place and that means I have to go there," she explained.

Sharon McKay spent time with Canadian troops in Afghanistan as research for her young adult novel, Thunder over Kandahar. (Sharon McKay)

For example, for Thunder over Kandahar, she did two tours of Afghanistan. For War Brothers, about child soldiers, she spent time in northern Uganda.

"So this book, the book I'm now discussing with my publisher, will take place probably in Jordan and so it was important to go to the camps where Syrian families are now housed," said McKay.

These Syrian refugees when asked by Susan Hartley what life was like in Syria told her they lived like queens. Now they live in a tent outside a camp in Jordan. (Submitted by Susan Benton Hartley)

Shrinking the distance

Hartley, a trained psychologist, could offer McKay her skills in interviewing refugees and young children. She had also studied global refugee issues while at the Peace Institute in Bangkok, and is working with Syrian refugees back home in Canada.

"It was an opportunity just to get a little bit closer to the things that I had studied, and to shrink the distance between us and the newcomers to our community so I was really excited," said Hartley.

Some of the Syrian refugees live outside the camp in tents like this one, which McKay and Hartley visited in Jordan. (Submitted by Susan Benton Hartley)

The two travellers from P.E.I. spent a "whirlwind" eight days in Jordan, in the capital city of Amman, as well as in refugee camps and visiting refugees living in tents in the desert outside the camps.

They want to go home

"What we found, and many people told us this, refugees come to a camp not expecting to stay there for a long time, so they come expecting it to be a very temporary situation," said Hartley.

"History tells us that's usually not the case and it's likely they're going to be there a long time."

Students at a refugee camp in Jordan that McKay and Hartley visited. (Submitted by Susan Benton Hartley)

She describes the refugees as having a very "here and now" mind set, not looking too far into the future.

"Most of them say they want to go home, just like any one of us," she observed.

"They'll say we want to go back to Syria but they realize that's not possible to do right now."

There is still time for soccer in the refugee camps in Jordan. (Submitted by Susan Benton Hartley)

Some of the refugees had family members or friends who had moved to Canada.

"The kids when they found out we were from Canada the first thing they would say, oh it's so cold and then they were very surprised to find out it can be very hot as well," said Hartley.

Book still a work in progress

McKay doesn't know when the book will be published, but says the trip to Jordan was an important step in finding the people she needs to help tell the story of the Syrian refugees.

One of the schools McKay and Hartley visited in a refugee camp in Jordan. (Submitted by Susan Benton Hartley)

"When you write outside of your culture, the chances of making mistakes are huge and it is scary to write about someone else's culture," she explained.

"So I'm also looking for people who will read my material who are honest, who are invested in the story and who want me to get it right."

Sharon McKay in Amman. (Submitted by Susan Benton Hartley)

While her books are usually targeted at readers ranging from 8 to 18, this book will be focused on the younger age group, from 8 to 12.

"Children in that age group have a great deal to give, a great deal of sensitivity," said McKay. 

"If they can understand a little bit about the war, and I don't have to be graphic, then certainly their sensitivity would increase."

'Seed of compassion'

Ultimately, McKay hopes the book will help her readers better understand the new arrivals from Syria, in their classroom and in their community.

"This is planting a seed of compassion," said McKay.

The visitors from P.E.I. brought books by Canadian writer Robert Munsch to share with children in the refugee camps. (Submitted by Susan Benton Hartley)

Hartley is happy to have been able to help with the book project.

"I think it's so important, what she's trying to do is help children here understand that Syrian child who sits next to them in the classroom when they've resettled and understand what their world was like," she explained.

"I'm just really privileged to be part of that process."


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.