What do you feel when a bomb destroys the house next to yours? Do you allow yourself to feel any happiness for having survived or only the sadness of having lost your neighbours? This question that I find difficult to comprehend was the reality for people who fled Syria to reach safety in Za’atari Refugee Camp.
The closer we get to the camp in northern Jordan, just 12km from Syrian border, the more desolate the landscape gets. Desert, scarce vegetation. The camp itself can be seen from a distance—a huge cluster of basic accommodation in the middle of the desert. Currently home to approximately 80,000 refugees.
Once in the camp we meet Alaa, a War Child facilitator and a Syrian refugee herself, who showed us around. “Hello, Ms Alaa,” she is cheerfully greeted by a group of, at a guess, eight-year-old kids that attend her classes. I see children everywhere—mostly boys. As I later learned, they had just gotten out of school after the morning shift. Kids are riding bikes, running around, playing, helping adults, walking with schoolbags.
During the whole day visit to the War Child site in Za’atari camp I see lots of evidence of how beneficial the work of this organisation is—for the children and for the parents alike.
When I enter through the gate of the grounds of the War Child centre, I feel it is like a colourful heaven—a safe and joyful oasis in the middle of the sand and these basic shelters. The caravans, painted by Syrian refugee artists with children from the centre, are suited for different types of activities: kindergarten for the youngest kids, youth clubs and psychosocial support as well as parenting skills for adults. When we arrive, the youngest children (four to six years old) enjoy their break in the morning session, playing, singing loudly, shouting and jumping in the play circle.
Soon after, they start their storytelling session where they get fully absorbed in a story of a naughty pupil who was late for classes and who had not learned his letters and numbers yet. Well, lucky for the teacher dressed as a clown, this group of adorable and enthusiastic kids are more than eager to explain to him how to count 1-2-3 and that he really, really needs to wash his hands and face before coming to school.
Lots of laughter, noise and curiosity, just like a typical day in a pre-school. That’s the nature of children, no matter the location or circumstances. These sessions are held just a couple of times a week but give the children the sense of routine and structure during the day, something they can hold on to and look forward to…
Later, we have a unique opportunity to visit a family living in a camp. Dad, Mahmoud, Mum, Layla and six kids—three girls and three boys. They arrived in Za’atari in 2013, after a whole day’s walk from their hometown, Daraa.
Why did they flee? What did they flee from? What was the breaking point two years after the conflict started? The shootings—first far from their home, then getting closer and closer, scaring the children. Then the bombings from the tanks and from the air. Then the arrests and direct threats. And then the neighbours’ house got bombed…So again, shall they be happy to survive or sad to lose their neighbours? Their first thought—we need to leave. On second thoughts—maybe we stay, after all it’s our home, our entire life. In the end it became too dangerous, for the family, for the kids, for the girls and women.
Once in Za’atari camp they resettled to be closer to their relatives within. They might have reached safety, but it’s not an easy life. From the green city of Daraa they moved to a desert. They had never experienced so much dust before. At first the kids were always afraid, scared of everything, any noise in the camp, sounds of planes.
As time went by things have somehow settled. The children started going to school and attend recreational activities and psychosocial support sessions in the War Child centre. With no electricity in their shelter, there’s not much the family can offer them in terms of daily activities. That’s why school and sessions in the centre are so important.
Nine-year-old daughter Afraa had already participated in some of the sessions and really misses the opportunity. Sometimes the heat makes it impossible to stay inside—and there are no trees to sit under for shade. In the centre she can play and gain social skills. She can meet other kids and the facilitators, who have been able to create a special bond with children. In this safe, friendly place she can simply enjoy being a child.
It was not an easy visit. To see the difficult conditions and to hear the story of this particular family was emotionally tough. But at the same time experiencing their hospitality, sharing a meal with the whole family, chatting not only about the horrific events back in Syria, but also about everyday things (like learning that a friend and War Child facilitator Muhammad is expecting his second child next week), being forced to eat more and more (this is sooo like at my Mum’s house) and breaking the language barrier was an overwhelming and positive experience on a human level—and very enriching in so many different ways. I felt good there. Mahmoud and his family opened their doors and their hearts for us. They shared a lot without expecting anything in return.
I leave their shelter with mixed emotions and questions. Will they be all right during the winter? Where will they be in a year’s time? Will the children have a chance to continue education? Will they ever be able to go back home? Would they have anything to go back to? Is there anything I could do to make a difference in their lives?
Seeing their strength and resilience, and witnessing the engagement and great work of the staff at the War Child centre, was a very humbling and at the same time motivating experience. The least I can do now is to give them the attention they deserve and share their story.
It’s just one story of so many. Za’atari camp is home to approximately 80,000 Syrian refugees—80,000 people with their own fears, hopes, dreams. It’s a home to, among others, Muhammad, a teacher of Arabic; Mahmoud, artist and taxi driver; Layla, housewife and a great cook; nine-year-old daughter Afraa , who loves to learn English at school; and two-year-old Elias who stole our hearts.