Since the onset of the Syrian conflict, refugees have been flooding into neighboring countries, searching for a sense of peace and safety that they have lost in their home. Zaatari, first opened in 2012, is now considered one of the fourth largest “cities” in Jordan and is jointly administered by the Jordanian government and regulated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since its opening, its population has grown exponentially, with over half of its inhabitants under the age of 18.
Within the organized refugee camps, there is a plan for construction of schools to expand the education system to meet the demands of the growing population of children, however barriers to education remain. Over half to the children currently living in the camp are not registered for formal schooling. And this does not address the children living on the outskirts of the camp or outside altogether.
When arriving in an organized refugee camp, registration with the UNHCR ensures access to free medical care, which is often limited. The camps, such as Zaatari, also usually offer meager food, water, and as stated above – some means of education. But of the millions of refugees displaced from Syria, there are a large number who do NOT register with the United Nations. There are likely various reasons for this, but the most common seem to be fear of retaliation or being forced to return to Syria, increasing difficulty in leaving the camps once established, and the desire for freedom to search for work or other means of income in order to support one’s family. Much of our medical care on this trip was for the latter population of refugees, meaning that we were likely the only source of medical treatment that they were able to receive – even in a life or death situation.
We spent time in one of the nearby random camp settlements, visiting with the families to get a better idea of what their living situation was like and how it may contribute to their current health.
With most of the children at prime school age, they are growing up without formal education. Some parents try to work with their children on their own, teaching them basic numbers, colors, and how to write their name. But unfortunately, the education often stops here.
Having been here since the Syrian conflict began, this life is the only one that most of these children know. Many children under the age of 6 either came as infants with their families from Syria or were born instantly into refugee status. They don’t know what it means to shop in a grocery store, to go to a mall, or to have their own room or even their own bed to sleep in. Most wear hand-me-downs or tattered clothes, share shoes with siblings and neighbors, and even forage for scraps to eat.
The one thing that most of these children recognize unconditionally is love. For many, their families have made excruciating sacrifices in order to leave the dangers of their home country. But in the midst of tragedy, the refugee population has banded together and children play together within the small communities and families look out for each other. Regardless of the circumstance, the children are able to smile and express joy and gratitude for even the simplest thing such as a hug.
Many of the children work hard to help their families with tasks inside the refugee camps, such as carrying water or supplies. For some of the young males who were left fatherless in the aftermath of war, they are now the head of the household and bear the heavy burden of watching over the rest of their loved ones.
As in most refugee environments, the medical ailments are predictable. The dry heat lends itself to multiple skin diseases such as eczema and psoriasis, but due to the lack of clean water combined with close living quarters, scabies and parasitic diseases are also common.
Walking around the camps, the children wanted their picture taken and would run in front of us and pose. After the shutter clicked, they would run around and ask to see themselves.
Although experiencing such devastation can be heartbreaking, it also can be inspiring. To see these children still laughing, able to experience so much joy and love, truly exemplifies the resiliency of the human spirit.
Because many families had to leave their homes in Syria suddenly and with whatever they could carry, they have very few – if any – personal belongings to speak of. This poses a complex problem for this generation of Syrian children. Because of the high number of children born within the camps, as well as the number of birth certificates that had to be left behind, many of these children are unable to register for citizenship in any country. Moving forward, this could pose devastating consequences for their future – as they will be unrecognized legally as citizens in any state.
Where do they go from here? Will they be able to return to Syria without documentation of citizenship? Will they be able to stay where they are? How will they get an education, grow up, raise a family? These questions all remain, for now, unanswered. Only time will tell how this scenario plays out for this generation of children.