Elizabeth Stevens / OXFAM America – 2013-11-05 00:57:11
(November 2013) — Close to 7,000 children have died in the brutal war in Syria, and one million have fled to neighboring countries. As OXFAM goes about its work in the camps and neighborhoods of Jordan and Lebanon, refugee children and their parents share e their stories of terror and loss, and their dreams of returning home to peace.
In Jordan’s northern desert, there is a camp for refugees from the fighting in Syria. Its name is Zaatari. Families that have fled their homes arrive at this desolate spot with what they care about most — their children — and little else.
More than 120,000 people live here now, and more than half are children. they are safe from bombs and mortars — for the moment, at least — and there is enough food, water, and shelter to survive, but Zaatari feels very far from home.
Here, the wind and sand and dust can whip themselves up into blinding storms. in winter, cold rains penetrate the crowded tents, and in summer, there is the sun.
“Nothing can describe the heat and sun,” says OXFAM engineer farah al-Basha. the glare and swelter of summer in the desert are almost unbearable, but going indoors just makes things worse: the tents and box- like shelters where people live are stifling.
For Syrians accustomed to their country’s lush greenery, it is hard to settle into such a place. But if the environment of Zaatari is inhospitable, so too are the places people have found to live outside of camp settings.
Approximately 80 percent of the refugees in Lebanon and Jordan — the countries where OXFAM has focused most of its resources in this emergency — are living in host communities, occupying whatever space they can find. In Lebanon, they have gathered in more than 1,400 locations. Some live in squalid tented settlements; others have moved their families into garages, crowded rooms, abandoned buildings, or homemade structures made of cinder blocks and plastic sheeting.
Outside the official camps, they must pay rent for their housing (crowded living quarters for a family might cost $150 a month), but without access to employment, most can’t afford to pay for the roof over their heads. Winter last year was unusually cold, and as the summer draws to a close, refugee families throughout the region face the prospect of another season of privation.
But physical hardship is only one facet of their struggles. For many, it is what preys on their minds that troubles them most — the memories of the recent past, and fear for the future of their children.
For Too Many Children, School Is Out
Children are everywhere in Zaatari camp, doing what children do. they play and run around and explore whatever looks interesting. They find treasures in what other people throw away (if it rolls, it is a soccer ball). They make kites out of scraps and send them soaring. They have a keen nose for fun.
They are not, for the most part, in school.
Some lost their hold on formal education back home, where the streets are dangerous and schools themselves have become targets in the war: the UN estimates that since the conflict began two and a half years ago, one out of every five schools in Syria has been destroyed, damaged, or converted into a shelter.
And though schools in Jordan and Lebanon have opened their doors to refugees, there is a host of obstacles to getting an education, from overcrowded classrooms to language barriers to safety threats to money.
“The children would love to go to school but they can’t. We can’t afford it,” says ibrahim Naif al-Dokham, a refugee who now lives with his family in Mafraq, Jordan. Once a driver and the owner of a small store, he is not allowed to work in Jordan and must borrow money just to pay the rent. “I can’t do anything about it. maybe we will get back to Syria after the war finishes. Maybe they will start studying again.”
The result: for refugee children who manage to enroll in school, a staggering 70 percent dropout rate. Numbers like these have given rise to warnings that the conflict is breeding a lost generation of youth that is both traumatized and undereducated.
Work at an Early Age
If the sight of children playing is common in the camps and host communities, so is the sight of children working.
Wherever the refugees have settled, boys haunt the streets and nearby markets, warehouses, and building sites in search of work for pay. Despite laws to prevent child labor, underage workers are a fact of life in the region, but the Syria crisis has intensified the problem: in Jordan alone, according to the ministry of Labor, nearly 30,000 young Syrians are now engaged in child labor.
Parents explain that traders hire children because they can pay them much less than they pay adults. “child refugees living near souks [markets] in Lebanon are hired to carry goods and sell them,” says protection officer Lou Lasap, whose job it is to make sure OXFAM is alert to the risks that vulnerable groups are facing in emergencies. “They are paid very little. Parents don’t want their children to work but say they have no choice because they need the income.”
Writing in the Darkness
Some of the refugee children — adolescent girls in particular — are kept close to home for fear they will not be safe in the wider community.
Twelve-year-old Teema is one of them. (For security reasons, we are not using her real name.) OXFAM reporter Jane Beesley met her while documenting a program to help families pay their rent. Reema spends her days in a windowless shelter — the first floor of a building under construction. Back home in Syria, she was a top student; as a refugee in Lebanon, she lives a life of stultifying boredom.
“I miss my friends, I miss my teachers, I miss my classes — my english classes, my Arabic classes, my music classes. Now, I’m just sitting here every day.â€¦”
She fills notebooks with drawings, poetry, and her memories of the war.
“I used to enjoy writing before,” she says, “but since coming here, after this tragedy, I have to write, I need to write.”
The sound of missiles was unbearable. I hid under the table. I thought it might protect me. As soon as I raised my head, I heard people screaming, people crying here and there. I opened the door to my room, ran to my mom, almost paralyzed with fear, screaming with all my strength: “Mom! Mom!” Mom, Dad and all my siblings gathered around me. We were crying and screaming. We all ran out to the street, fearful, not knowing where to go. I left home. I left my schoolbag, my notebook, my pencils. I didn’t finish my homework. I ran as fast as I could….
“I couldn’t stop writing even if I wanted to,” says Reema. “The sadness drives me to write all the time.”
‘I Would Put You in my Heart’
The war has left its tracks on children who have managed to flee to safety.
“Very young children are telling us about how they’ve seen their neighbors killed and what they’ve witnessed,” says OXFAM media officer Karl Schembri.
Some have become withdrawn, others aggressive. Many say they can’t concentrate in school. After what they’ve been through, says Schembri, “they can’t pretend life is business as usual.”
They struggle with sleeplessness and bed-wetting, say parents, and when an ordinary airplane goes overhead, children run to their mothers screaming, “They’re trying to kill us!”
But when it comes to recovery, simple interventions can make a difference. in the therapy program of OXFAM partner Najdeh in Lebanon, coordinator Hana el-Eynein explains that children are encouraged to express themselves through art and games. They play with construction toys that let them imagine rebuilding their homes. “Day by day, little by little, the upset expression on their faces changes as trust returns and they feel more hopeful.”
In Zaatari camp, OXFAM staff invited children to decorate the newly built water and sanitation blocks. The activity, says Schembri, opened up space for them to be kids again. “They made really colorful paintings. Lots of sun and trees and rivers. You find that children are craving for life.”
And parents crave peace of mind for their children. When bad dreams and the sound of missiles exploding in the distance disturb their sleep, mothers and fathers sing lullabies to let their children know it’s safe to rest.
Sleep, sleep my love,
So that I would put you in my heart …
Get a kiss from Daddy
And get a kiss from Mommy
So that my loved ones would fall asleep,
So that my loved ones would fall asleep.
Love in the Wreckage
“So many people have told me, â€˜our houses have been destroyed, but houses can be rebuilt,'” says Schembri.
It is a declaration of hope — of defiance, even. As the war and refugee crisis intensify, defiant hope is an antidote to despair.
So are the children who laugh and run around and paint pictures. Who hop on the back of a water truck to take a ride through a camp. Who swoop in to deliver a fistful of wildflowers to surprise the aid workers. And who find beauty and love in the midst of the wreckage of war.
Syria, my beloved country
Will I ever return back to you?
I had so many dreams.
None of them will come true.
All I want is to live in my country in freedom.
Syria, my beloved country, I love you.
Thanks to Oxfam supporters, we have so far been able to reach more than 200,000 Syrian refugees with assistance.
Our programs are focused primarily on providing water, sanitation, and hygiene education to protect public health in the areas where refugees have gathered in Lebanon and Jordan. In the Zaatari camp, we have built permanent blocks of water and sanitation facilities for 8,000 people that include showers and toilets that are wheelchair accessible.
For those living outside of camps in host communities, the greatest need is for assistance with rent; Oxfam is supporting particularly vulnerable households with installments of cash to help avert evictions.
A partner in Lebanon is providing a group of women and their children with therapy sessions aimed at helping them recover from the losses and violence they have experienced in the war. And through the Voice Project, a partner in Jordan is helping refugees speak out about their lives and the issues they face.
Inside Syria, the water and sanitation infrastructure has been badly damaged; Oxfam has sent a team of technical experts to help improve access to safe water and sanitation facilities within the war-torn country.
Our goal in the coming months is to assist an additional 450,000 people affected by the crisis.