International Rescue Committee (IRC)

How cupcakes can change the world

By Sabine Choucair

RAMTHA, Jordan - A group of devoted, super-excited Syrian girls hit the streets recently to send a message to their neighbors in Ramtha, Jordan, where they live as refugees. But instead of carrying placards or distributing leaflets, they handed out homemade cupcakes with messages intended to help Jordanians better understand their lives as displaced Syrians

The group, 18 teenagers, four IRC staffers and myself, had just engaged in two weeks of social therapy. We laughed together, played like kids, listened to each other’s stories, shared grief, and most importantly created something new. 

Usually in these sessions, members of the group reveal some of their life difficulties and the rest suggest practical ways to deal with such problems in a positive way. Being a teenager is tough in the best circumstances, but growing up as a refugee (there are 60,000 displaced Syrians in Ramtha) is not exactly the most pleasant way to spend the most sensitive years of your life.

The girls in our group expressed normal teenage frustrations, but they also spoke of losing the things that make those frustrations easier to deal with: their friends, their homes, their belongings. Some of the girls said they were bullied in school, and many admitted they suffered from the stigma of being a refugee. This, they said, hurt their self-esteem and sometimes made them feel insecure. 

A group of 18 girls baked and decorated over 100 cupcakes. The idea came from a discussion during a two-week social-therapy workshop that brought together Syrian refugee teenagers and their Jordanian counterparts. Photo: Sabine Choucair 

During our social therapy weeks, the girls expressed a desire to help their Jordanian hosts better understand their situation. The discussion began an amazing process during which these “mostly” shy girls let their imagination drive the conversation. Each one added her idea to the previous ones, and in no time the group had devised a unique, ambitious project. 

Only then, they went silent for a moment, looking at each other in amazement. “Oh, no, how did we come up with this scheme?” they said. “We can’t walk on the streets and distribute cupcakes, what would people say? It’s impossible!”But something deep down motivated them. They formed two committees, picked a day for action, bought what they needed for a long day of baking, and started to write out the messages they want to send. 

That day was one of the most amusing, fun days we spent together. The center vibrated with joyful Arabic music, some girls baking, some decorating the cakes, others typing, cutting and gluing pieces of paper, laughing and dancing from time to time. 

Ten minutes before we were scheduled to hit the streets, half of the group decided they couldn’t go through with the plan. They said they were too scared to face the world outside. But their sisters convinced them that the goal was worthy and they were all in this together. So … off we went! 

The cupcakes had 15 different messages. One read: “ I am like your mother, daughter and sister. Treat me like you want other people to treat them.” Photo: Sabine Choucair 

Our first stop was the butcher’s shop next to the community center. He thanked the girls for their gift of the cupcake and then he discovered the message written on a tiny paper flag planted in the icing. He pondered it. “I am going to take this cupcake to my wife,” he said. “We always wondered what you girls do in this center everyday.”

Our excitement grew the farther we wandered from the center. The girls had made 160 cupcakes with 15 different messages. One read: “ I am like your mother, daughter and sister. Treat me like you want other people to treat them.” Some messages were simple: “Thank you for welcoming us.” Others philosophical: “Border is an imaginary line. Why use it with us?”  

Girls hand out cupcakes at the butcher’s shop next to the community center for Syrian refugees in Ramtha. Photo: Sabine Choucair 

They distributed all of the 160 cupcakes, and that act in in itself empowered them. “This is exciting,” said one of the more reticent girls. “I think I can easily do it. Give me more cakes to share with people.” They found themselves befriending people they never imagined greeting before. They were doing the impossible. 

On our way back to the center, the butcher greeted us and we greeted him back. 

The girls had remade their world by baking some cakes.

Sabine Choucair is certified in social therapy from the East Side Institute in New York and has conducted theater, storytelling and group therapy projects with drug addicts, marginalized communities, and youth living in difficult situations around the world. She has a B.A. in theater from the Lebanese University and studied at the International School of Performing Arts (LISPA) and the Desmond Jones School of Mime in London. She is a member of the international companies Theatre Amoeba and Infectious Theatre and co-founder of Clown Me In.

1 comment


I think that this idea is

I think that this idea is very interesting for the host community to better understand the sufferings of the Syrian refugees in Jordan. Maybe we will be organizing such a similar activity in our center in North of Lebanon. Keep up the good work.