Keeping hope alive for the children of Syria

Za’atari refugee camp is a place that’s become famous in Jordan and abroad. I remember the day it opened, in the summer of 2012, when it was no more than a desolate patch of sand close to the border with Syria. A fierce dust storm made it almost impossible to see the long lines of canvas tents stretching towards the horizon. That day, Za’atari made a pretty miserable sight.

I remember speaking to some of the families who had just crossed the border. There were only a few dozen of them then, but they came across as fiercely proud people, filled with anger about their new circumstances – and convinced that within a few weeks or months at the most, they would be on their way home to Syria.

Well, of course, that hasn’t happened, not for the inhabitants of Za’atari, nor for the rest of the more than 3 million Syrian refugees now scattered around the region. Today, Za’atari qualifies as Jordan’s fourth largest city, with anywhere up to 80,000 residents.

Most of the tents have been replaced by container homes that give a lot more protection against both the extreme heat of summer, and the rain and bitter cold of winter. The camp has a busy market and some of the main streets have been tarmacked. The restaurants serve very passable kebabs, and you can get yourself a haircut. Someone told me there’s even a pet-shop.

Za'atari refugee camp today - tarmac streets and a sense of normalcy. (c) UNICEF/Simon Ingram
Za’atari refugee camp today – tarmac streets and a sense of normalcy. (c) UNICEF/Simon Ingram

But even more important has been the change in the way the people living in Za’atari see their situation. Today, very few talk about going home anytime soon. Instead, there’s a kind of resigned acceptance that they must make do with this enforced exile and get on with their lives as best they can.

Mohamed, his wife Ferdanel, and their four children have lived in Za’atari for more than two years. Mohamed has a part-time job in a shop making the Arabic baklava and other sweets that Syria is justly famous for.

But his pride and joy is his twelve-year-old daughter, Yenal. She’s a bright girl with an artistic streak who’s painted cheerful murals of trees and butterflies on the walls of the family’s container home.

I accompanied Mohamed and Yenal on the short walk to the camp school which she attends. The schools used to be a place for angry, often traumatised children to let off steam. But now there’s a more orderly atmosphere, and the kids have the normal concerns about homework and exams.

Yenal shows off some of her artwork. (c) UNICEF/Simon Ingram
Yenal shows off some of her artwork. (c) UNICEF/Simon Ingram

The head teacher told me the change affected older students, in particular. At first, these teenagers didn’t see much point in taking classes and exams based on the Jordanian curriculum, which would never be recognised back in Syria. Now many are taking those classes nonetheless.

Four years after Syria plunged into crisis, and with no prospect of a solution in sight, it may be dangerous to read too much into small changes like this. But as the war grinds remorselessly on, it is vital that we keep alive the belief among Syria’s children that all is not hopeless, that one day the fighting will end, and that they will have the chance to play a real part in constructing a new, better society for themselves and their communities.

Sitting with Yenal, she told me that when she first came to Jordan, she was convinced that she had lost her future. But now, enrolled in school and attending regular sessions at an activity centre that UNICEF provides support for, things are different she says.

“Today, I can dream again, of becoming an architect one day,” she told me.

Simon Ingram is the UNICEF Middle East and Africa Regional Chief of Communication

For regular updates visit the #ChildrenofSyria website.

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