Friday, May 10, 2013

A chance for Zaatari's children

[Originally posted at NOW]

This is the second in a two-part series based on NOW’s visit to Jordan’s Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees on May 5, 2013. Read the first article, ‘Zaatari’s mukhabarrat wars,’ here.

Three refugee children from Nawa, near Daraa, in Zaatari camp (NOW/Alex Rowell)

ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan – Just meters behind the Jordanian military checkpoint that forms the entrance to the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, small, expressionless children wait to pounce on new arrivals, offering to help with luggage and, failing that, simply begging for money.

“Just one dinar,” said Abd al-Rahman, a bony 12 year-old from Homs, tugging at NOW’s forearm. “My father was killed in Syria. I have to work to feed my mother and brothers.”

Walk further down the main road, which doubles as a bustling shopping boulevard, and the children are everywhere – pushing wheelbarrows, carrying cardboard boxes on their shoulders, and selling anything from phone cards to foreign currency to live chickens.

It was a sizzling hot afternoon in the rocky plains of Jordan’s northern desert, and as NOW ventured deeper into the camp, the irradiating sunlight bounced off the tarmac, compounding the blinding effect of the dust kicked up by the blasting winds. “I’m so thirsty. I need water,” said Abd al-Rahman, patting his lips, who did not leave NOW’s side until a dinar ($1.40 USD) was handed over.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of last month some 57% of registered Zaatari refugees were under 18. That amounts to over 90,000 children in the camp, many without one or both parents and condemned, for the most part, to lives of manual labor.

As such, some aid organizations are trying to create alternatives for Zaatari’s youth and prepare them for an eventual post-camp future. At present, there are two schools in the camp offering free, basic education for all (the “Bahrain School” and the imaginatively-titled “School No. 2”). But Mohammed Hadid, the Jordanian project coordinator of the Finnish government-funded Finn Church Aid (FCA) NGO, seeks to provide much more.

In his portable cabin office in a fenced-off gravel plot on the west side of the camp, Hadid explains the various types of training his organization has offered refugees since opening in December 2012.

“First of all, there is literacy training. For now this is limited to Arabic, but we hope in the coming weeks to add English too. Second is vocational skills – we asked the young men and women what they wanted to be trained in, and we will start accordingly. The men mostly chose electrician training, and the women chose sewing. Third, we provide physical exercises – circus acrobatics, gymnastics and juggling for now, with football and others in the next few months,” he told NOW.

The courses are open for all refugees between the ages of 15 and 24, and run five days a week. So far, Hadid says he’s attracted around 150 regular attendees, and though the number is growing, he faces a number of social and cultural challenges in boosting enrollment.

“It’s a very sensitive age bracket,” he told NOW. “For men, they feel a pressure to work and earn money for their families. As for women, this is seen as the time to get married, so many are reluctant to leave the house for fear of unwanted male attention.”

Accordingly, Hadid is often compelled to personally meet families in order to win their trust. “We have no choice but to go tent to tent, explaining what it is we do and trying to convince parents that this is in the best interests of the children.” In keeping with the general cultural conservatism of the refugee population, all courses are gender-segregated.

Those who do show up speak highly of the experience. 18-year-old Muhammad Rublan, from Daraa, currently takes the gymnastics course. “I love it, it’s bringing a real positive energy,” he told NOW. “In Syria, we never heard of this type of sport.”

The exercise also provides a welcome relief from the hardship of camp life. “In Zaatari we have no jobs, we have no activities to do during the day. This sport is a stress relief that keeps us active.”

As an added benefit for camp residents, FCA hires staff exclusively from the refugee population. Instructors are paid 10JD ($14) per five-hour working day, while two security guards and a cleaner get an hourly rate of 1.5JD ($2.10 USD) – no fortune, but certainly enough to make a difference when compared to the 2-4JD ($2-6 USD) that, depending on size, goes to whole families per day in cash assistance from UNHCR.

One such employee is Anwar Abu Jaysh, a Daraa refugee in his mid-twenties, who has worked for FCA as an Arabic-English translator for a month.

“I liked the idea very much when I heard about it,” said Abu Jaysh in English – a language he learned during childhood years spent in the United Arab Emirates. “It means I’m able to help other refugees while also earning money for myself.”

Abu Jaysh has even mulled the idea of starting his own organization one day. “Some of the very young children are often behaving badly. When there’s a demonstration, for example, you’ll see kids as young as four or five throwing rocks at people. I would like to make a project for these children too.”

Yet, for the dozen young boys gathering by the entrance to the FCA grounds as we speak, such mischief seems far from the mind. “They’re about to start one of the physical circuits,” explains Hadid. With a gesture to a security guard, the gate opens and they sprint noisily toward a large activity tent, where an instructor greets them atop a unicycle. However grueling the rest of their day may be, for this moment, at least, they look happy.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting from Beirut.

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