WSU graduate follows goals to Jordanian refugee camp

BY MAIA GABRIEL | Evergreen reporter

Parents dream about their children accomplishing their goals, but none guess their child’s goal will result in them living in a refugee camp.

Maria Delane, 22, volunteered in the Jordanian refugee camp, Zaatari, on the border of Syria. Delane left for the camp at the end of May after earning her WSU degree in political science. She was a self-proclaimed freelance journalist while in the camp.

She said she always knew she wanted to go into politics.

“It was all self-interest,” she said of her degree. “I don’t think my parents ever wanted me to go into politics, let alone study it in school. They wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer. But it was something I just needed, wanted to do.”

Although worried, Delane’s parents supported her decision to volunteer in the camp.

“She is a goal-oriented person and she knows exactly what she wants to be,” said Delane’s mother, Kawkab Shishani, who is an assistant professor at the WSU Spokane College of Nursing. “She is ready to face whatever and has the potential to make a big change.”

Delane helped in the camp of about 200,000 refugees by working in health clinics and distributing heart monitors, which check for diabetes. She also taught English and Arabic at the school, but her main interest was talking with the refugees and learning their stories.

Delane said she was not affiliated with any of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the camp because she wanted work freedom.

She said she hopes her conversations with the refugees will help her with her focus in graduate school. Delane plans to begin in January and focus on policy analysis. Delane said applying her knowledge from class to reality helped as well.

“You never expect to really be able to associate people’s stories with those theoretical concepts you’re learning,” she said.

Delane’s work as a freelancer was valuable because she learned the needs, wants and fears of the refugees, something NGOs do not often understand, said Joe Huseby, a WSU instructor in politics, philosophy and public affairs. Delane’s knowledge of refugees will provide better administration of aid and improve relations between refugees and local communities.

Huseby was not only one of Delane’s instructors, but also her mentor. Huseby and Delane spoke about the challenges one faces when working with refugees before she left and continued via email while she was away.

“As an educator, you want to see people learn the theories and concepts and then go into the field and apply them,” he said. “There’s a lot of students who are very bright and capable but they don’t all jump on a plane and stick their nose in a refugee camp.”

Delane was born in Jordan, but has lived in both Jordan and the U.S. throughout her life. She moved to the U.S. to live for a few years as a child while her mother was earning her Ph.D., and moved back to the U.S. when her mother started working at WSU Spokane in 2009.

Delane said she believes her interest in politics began as a child in Jordan.

“It’s always around you, it’s always something people talk about,” she said of politics. “It’s something you have to be aware of because Jordan is a tiny country surrounded by all these countries at war. I started thinking about things more critically at a younger age.”

Delane’s mother is from Chechnya, an area by the northern Caucasus Mountains, and her father is Jordanian. Chechens have a very different culture from Jordanians, she said.

“When I was younger I had a conflicting identity because of the different cultures,” she said, including her U.S. identity.

Delane said her mixed ancestry and where she grew up was part of her inspiration to help others.

“(I was) alive and aware for most of the problems going on,” she said of the war conflict. “It always frustrated me not being able to do anything. So I figured academics was the best way to go. I’m not a fighter. I wanted to do something about it and politics came natural to me.”

Throughout the summer, Delane’s parents watched the violence increase near Delane’s location in Jordan on the news.

“The fear was getting bigger and bigger,” Shishani said. “We were calling her too many times. We were so concerned about her safety. Then she decided, ‘For the sake of my parents, I should be coming home.’”

Delane returned to the U.S. after spending about two months in the camp.

Delane said she never felt unsafe in Jordan because she always thought of it as home.

“I’ve always known that Jordan was a safe place that people were coming into from different parts of the Arab world,” she said.

Jordanians are currently a minority in Jordan because people from the surrounding countries are fleeing from the wars, Delane said.

Delane and Shishani are returning to Jordan next week because Shishani is attending conferences.

Delane said never staying in one home for too long gave her the opportunity to create many friendships.

“It’s really gotten me to appreciate diversity,” she said of her different cultural friendships.

Delane wants to eventually earn a Ph.D. and teach at a Jordanian university.

Huseby said Delane doesn’t just plan her goals — she completes them.

“I never had to ask her, ‘So, what are you going to do next?’” he said. “She always knew what the next step was.”