Even by his own admission, Nicholas Vangen-Weeks will have only a small role in addressing what is turning into a crisis in the Middle East. But the 24-year-old Minneapolis resident looks forward to making whatever small contribution he can.
His backpack over his shoulder, Vangen-Weeks left Tuesday for a monthlong assignment in Jordan. Working for the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee, he will be among the aid workers who will confront a staggering reality: 5,000 Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland every day, many of them crossing the border into Jordan.
He left on a day when the number of Syrian refugees surpassed 2 million, with most arriving in neighboring Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The plight is straining resources and further demanding global humanitarian relief.
“Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are being pushed to the breaking,” he said. “The scale of this refugee crisis is unlike anything they’ve experienced before. So it’s getting them the tools they need.”
Vangen-Weeks will continue the American Refugee Committee’s programming in the region, which includes working with other relief agencies to provide clean water and shelter. Besides its global partners, the committee has been working with another Minneapolis-based organization, Questscope, which focuses on youth issues in the Middle East.
While there are large refugee camps in Jordan and the other countries, three-fourths of the refugees live in urban areas, renting apartments or being taken in by host communities. Overcrowding is rampant, and shelter is often dangerous.
The crisis demands that the focus is on the short term. But there are efforts at ensuring that refugee children receive schooling and that all have the skills they will need if, or when, they return to Syria. One million of the refugees are children, and 75 percent of those are younger than 11.
“Our goal is that they go back, but we need to provide for any eventuality,” he said.
For more than 30 years, the American Refugee Committee’s 2,500 staff members have worked with refugees around the world, providing shelter, clean water, sanitation, health care, skills training, education and protection.
This will be Vangen-Weeks’ third trip to the region in the past six months. The work has been demanding but rewarding.
“It’s stressful, but at the end of the day, if you and your team and your organization and the humanitarian community at large do their jobs correctly, people’s lives get saved and people’s lives get rebuilt,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction in that, even if one’s personal role is incredibly tiny.”