With No Way to Return Home, Syrian Refugees in Iraq Live in Limbo

The boy standing in the cement block doorway called to us to take his picture.  We couldn’t resist his bright smile in the bleak and dust of the refugee camp.  We went over and snapped a few shots and he looked at them proudly on our cell phones.  His uncle, who was hovering close by, came to talk with us and soon we were sitting in their one-room cinderblock home, sipping warm Coca-Cola in tiny glasses.  Nawzad’s father, uncle and mother told us how the two families had ended up here in Domiz, a refugee camp near the border with Syria. They picked up and left when there was no longer a village, no house and no jobs to keep them there – no home to stay for.

 

Carolyn talks to Syrian refugees in the Domiz Refugee Camp
Photo Credit: Sebastian Meyer/Getty Images
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In Refugee Camps, Basics Become Luxuries

The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan is home to more than 100,000 refugees who have fled the fighting in Syria, but it’s unlikely that any of the camp’s residents consider this place—cold, crowded and under resourced—“home.”

 

I traveled to Za’atari last week after the launch of Save the Children’s recent global report, Childhood Under Fire, marking the two-year anniversary of the conflict in Syria.  What I saw gave all of the statistics we hear about in the news—more than one million refugees in neighboring countries, and an estimated four million displaced inside of Syria —a very human face.

 

I met a young mother and her two month-old son at our infant and young child feeding center inside the camp.  She told me that when she and her other children fled Syria, they left nearly everything behind…including her husband, who stayed to protect their home.  She was very pregnant when they left and she was afraid she might give birth on the way, but she was too scared to stay.  Her town was being bombed heavily and she didn’t know if there would be a hospital left standing when it was time to give birth.  According to our report, many doctors and health facilities in Syria have been targets of attack and nearly a third of the country’s hospitals are now closed.

 

When this young mother arrived at the frigid camp, she found out about Save the Children’s infant and young child feeding program and sought it out, where they staff helped her find the right care for the birth.  Save the Children’s center—in a trailer inside the camp—works to help moms initiate and continue breastfeeding, get help on how to keep their babies healthy by providing access to vaccines and health services and receive clothing and blankets and high protein biscuits for nursing moms.

 

These small things, which until recently were considered basic items and interventions for new moms at home in Syria, have become luxuries for refugee moms in Za’atari.

 

Similarly, people often think of early education as a luxury for children living in refugee camps, but some families have been living in the camps for two years—and the interruption to young lives can be devastating.  Before the conflict, more than 90% of primary school-aged children in Syria were enrolled (one of the highest rates in the Middle East) but the conflict has upended their learning.  Access to early education, with a focus on nutrition, can make a world of difference for a generation of Syrian children.

 

I was lucky enough to visit with more than a hundred 3-5 year-olds there during their meal time at a kindergarten Save the Children set up inside the camp.  Every day, children enrolled in the school receive a meal of yogurt, fruit, bread with meat and juice each day—a major source of nutrition for kids, since food rations available in the camp consist mostly of lentils, bread, bulgur, oil and sugar.  This meal also helps them have the energy they need to learn in the classroom and, just as importantly, to play. Many of the children saw horrific things in Syria, experienced fear as they fled their homes and are living in very close and uncomfortable quarters—so having a chance to play with other children and just be kids is a crucial part of their healing and development.

 

No family should consider nutritious foods, safe childbirth and kindergarten a luxury and we’re working to make life a little easier for displaced kids.  But at the Za’atari camp, and for families everywhere who have been forced to flee due to violence, drought or conflict, the greatest luxury of all would be simply to go home.

 

Day 3: King Abdullah Park Refugee Camp

Anoymous womanTorrey Taussig

Zarqa, Jordan

January 17, 2013


Childhood’s Simple Joys 

Today we visited the King Abdullah Park refugee camp in northern Jordan, outside of Ramtha. The weather is still cold, rainy and windy today, and it is hard to think that these conditions will only continue to worsen over the coming months. King Abdullah Park is a much smaller site than the Za’atari camp that we visited yesterday, and it is a more enclosed space that can only accommodate around 1,200 people. The site was previously meant to be a park for the nearby neighborhoods, but upon completion, the Syrian crisis elevated and the Jordanian government turned it into a space for a refugee camp.

P1081147Given the more manageable size, the conditions are slightly different from the larger Za’atari camp, which is in constant influx. Here, each family has a container with solid walls and floors, raised off the ground, which is crucial during the cold and rainy winter months.

There are around 450 children at the camp, and many of them are able to attend local Jordanian state-run schools in the nearby towns. Everyday, Save the Children helps to transport the children back and forth between the schools and the camp, separately busing girls and boys to their different schools. To maintain a sense of normalcy and reduce the tension that the upheaval has caused, the Syrian children go to school in separate sessions from the Jordanian children. The schools and teachers have graciously accommodated the new children, and have taken on more hours and longer shifts in order to handle the increased need for schooling.

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While at the camp, we had the opportunity to visit another child friendly space run by Save the Children. Similar to yesterday, we were met by dozens of happy, bright-eyed children, who were eager to play, sing and dance. The space, albeit cold due to the weather, was brightly colored and filled with toys. Given the rain, the older children who are often able to play soccer and volleyball on the outside fields needed to be inside the space with the younger children. The teachers and Save the Children staff have the patience and attentiveness of saints, and were able to manage the large number of children with care, warmth and joy.

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We also learned how selfless the staff is, as many of them have taken time off from their jobs elsewhere in Jordan to help aid in the refugee efforts. We met two men, one of whom is a physical education teacher nearby, and another who runs his own hair salon! They both now spend their days running around with a highly energetic group of children who are confined to the boundaries of their campsite and are in need of attention and activity. It is through acts of kindness such as these that you can truly see the generosity of the Jordanian people, who have accommodated so many people that have nowhere else to turn.

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We stayed at the space for over an hour, having been immediately accepted by the engaging and friendly children and staff. We were able to partake in a number of different activities that the children were doing, including drawing beautiful pictures of Syrian flags, flowers, smiling faces, and hearts.  They were also performing puppet shows that they had created themselves, playing ping-pong, badminton and legos. There were also dozens of toys for the children to play with, and it was clear that the space provides a respite from the more tedious camp life that awaits them outside.

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At the end of the morning session at the child friendly space, the children headed out to the school buses that were waiting to take them to the local schools. We followed them to Ramtha, where we visited a first-grade girls’ classroom. The teacher was conducting a math lesson, and the eight girls (smaller class size than average due to the weather) enthusiastically took turns coming up to the chalkboard to practice arithmetic, happily cheering when they arrived at the right answers. Despite the hardships they have been through, their excitement and energy is contagious. They left us with a renewed belief that children everywhere deserve the chance to have a childhood, regardless of their circumstances.

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Their lives are by no means easy, and their living conditions make their days even harder. All sense of normalcy they once had is gone, and even after months of living in the camps away from their homes and the lives they once knew, they face continuous adjustment. In a world where humans can do so much harm and cause so much destruction, the work that the Jordanian government and its people, Save the Children, UNICEF, UNHCR and other organizations are doing on the ground shows the best of humanity; and at the end of the day, that is all that we have.

Day 2: Za’atari Refugee Camp

Anoymous womanTorrey Taussig

Zarqa, Jordan

January 10, 2013


Strength, Kindness and Patience in Humanity  

Outside of Al Mufraq, about 12 KM (8 miles) from the Syrian border, lies Za’atari Refugee Camp. Approaching the camp is somewhat like approaching the end of the earth, and flat, desolate land stretches out in all directions. There is very little vegetation or life in the area, and with today’s rain, wind and cold temperatures, the setting was even bleaker.

On a numbers basis, the Za’atari refugee camp is nothing short of a miracle, especially when one considers the sheer number of people flooding into the once barren dessert site. The camp currently has around 60,000 people living there, and is receiving between 1,000 to 1,400 people a night. Nearly 1,800 people crossed the border and entered into the camp on a single night this past week. The numbers are unfathomable, and difficult for the mind to grasp, and even more so when one takes into consideration the amount of food, shelter and health services being provided to all of the refugees on a daily basis.

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Save the Children has about 120 staff there (it was the first organization to respond at Za’atari) and is working with other organizations such as UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP and others to provide the best care that they can, although the conditions get more and more difficult by the day. Everyone who comes to the camp is now staying for the foreseeable future. Before, around 150 people used to leave a day- some going back to Syria, others being taken in by Jordanian host communities or families. Now very few, if any, return to Syria.

Driving down the long straightaway to the front of the camp, you can only see flat land sectioned off by barbed wire fence, giving a sense of going into a closed off zone. At the entrance to the camp, the security presence is heavy.

Upon entering, we could see the entrepreneurial spirit of the people right away. Some tents around the entrance are being used as shops and small markets, sporadically set up by the Syrians as a way of obtaining different commodities and earning a small amount of money.

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We first went to the food distribution areas, where there are huge tents set up for daily bread distribution and bi-weekly distribution of food kits. Depending on the number of members in a family, each family is given a number and told when it is their turn to pick up their food boxes, which include salt, oil, lentils, rice and bulgur wheat, enough to last for about two weeks.

The distribution tents are divided in two, one half for the men and the other for the women. The woman side tended to be more orderly and quiet, slightly less raucous than the male distribution side. Regardless, everybody waited patiently for their food kits to be distributed to them, and smiled as we walked by. The food distribution sites are kept orderly by gates and single points of entrances and exits.

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Next we went to the school, which was constructed with great efficiency and care by the Bahrain government. The school is a more permanent structure than the dense population of tents growing outside of its walls, and each room has a space heater; a rare commodity that is unseen among the tents where the Syrians are living.

There, we met with Save the Children staff and a psychologist, who is working with some of the children, mostly on issues pertaining to violence that they have seen. The school is composed of children ages six to eighteen.  It can hold around 2,000 children at a time and the classes are taught by Jordanian teachers and Syrian teaching assistants who are refugees in the camps themselves. They teach the Jordanian curriculum, and we learned that the children had their end of semester exams approaching! Despite the added stress that may come along with the exams, the structure provides activity, continuity and a small amount of normalcy for the children whose lives have been uprooted since they left their homes many months, and sometimes over a year ago.

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Inside the classrooms, there are wooden desks and chalkboards. There are many pictures and writings on all of the desks, including pictures of the Syrian flags, and hearts. On others, the students have written poetry, writings of peace and in once instance, a short paragraph saying: Do not be afraid to write, my pen. Life is a memory. Freedom and pain are forever.

Writing, and art, can be a form of healing and expression at a time when there are no other ways to voice their fears, hopes and dreams for the future.

Save the Children recently put together a small book of children’s pictures, where the Syrian children sketched their hopes, dreams and aspirations for the coming year. Many drew pictures of flowers, Syrian flags, clothing and included inscriptions such as, I wish…

To go back to Syria

To go home

A doll and toys

Warm clothing

To see my brother back in Syria

To be back in my room

To be happy, joyful,

That my life will be full of roses

These are simple dreams, simple aspirations that many of us would take for granted. For all of the children in the Za’atari refugee camp, their homes are now tents in a cold and wintry desert. Unlikely to happen upon a rose anytime soon, they will, like all children, just continue to dream.

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We next went to Save the Children’s kindergarten area where a teacher-training session was taking place. Despite the grey skies and barren tents, the muddy paths and the large puddles of water developing on the main roads, the atmosphere was immediately filled with color, light and joy as soon as pulled open the entrance to the early childhood center tents. The space is covered with a bright red carpet depicting cartoon characters, and the every corner of the tent is filled with toys and red, yellow and blue chairs. At a small table on the side of the room, a teacher training was going on with both Jordanian and Syrian “animators” (a term used by Save the Children to describe the volunteers working with children in the early childhood centers.) The young women, many of whom are refugees themselves, greeted us with smiles, waving and singing, and seemed particularly joyful that morning. We all participated in a training activity using brightly colored balloons, meant to be an icebreaker game for the children.

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Save the Children is also caring for unaccompanied minors, children who came without families and are alone for a number of reasons. Some include that their mothers did not want to leave their homes in Syria, that they stayed behind to take care of a newborn or very young child, or because their mothers did not want their sons recruited and sent them to the borders for their own safety.

Before leaving, we visited the spaces where the unaccompanied minors are staying who have not yet been assigned to a tent. We spoke to one fourteen-year old boy, who was waiting in the trailer lined with cots, blankets, and a few other boys around his age. His hand was swollen from an injury that he incurred from mortar shelling, and he came to the camps for treatment and physical therapy. He told Save the Children that when he is better, he will return to Syria where the rest of his family has stayed behind. For him, there does not seem to be a doubt in his mind that he will return as soon as he is better.

We then left the camp to head back to Amman for the night. The rain was not letting up, and the increasingly worsening weather only stood to prove how much the refugees are in need of supplies and clothing to help keep them warm. Yet at the end of the day, even among such dire circumstances, hope was ever present and the human spirit indomitable.

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Day 1: The Jordanian Host Communities

Anoymous womanTorrey Taussig

Zarqa, Jordan

January 9, 2013


 Resiliency

Today we visited the host communities throughout Amman where Syrian refugees are being welcomed into neighborhoods by local Jordanians. The government has accepted them into local schools and Save the Children is working to help support their time in Jordan, which for some has been over a year. Save the Children is running cash voucher programs at community centers, along with resiliency programs and child friendly spaces throughout the neighborhoods for refugees and local Jordanian children. The resiliency programs are teaching children the skills they need to be accepted and get along with their new classmates and companions. The child friendly spaces give children an opportunity to participate in structured activities such as drawing and talking about their lives and communities in Syria and their lives now.

The Save the Children Community Center: Zarqa

 Our first visit was to a local community center on the outskirts of Amman where Save the Children was organizing a large-scale cash voucher system for Syrian refugee families. The cash vouchers can be used people can use for food at different markets in the area with whom Save the Children has agreements and remain valid for two weeks. The amount of cash in the vouchers depends on the number of members in the family. We learned that the cash vouchers are better than food distributions because it allows the families to purchase what they need and do the shopping themselves rather than queue in line for distribution.

Each of the vouchers had a serial number on them, as opposed to names, to protect the identity of the families. Then, different numbers get called on different days, and families know when they need to come and collect their vouchers.

The front of the center was a busy scene, with dozens of people leaning over the registration desk, attempting to register and find out when they would be allowed to pick up their vouchers. The back room was calmer, with people, almost all adults, calmly waiting for their numbers to be called. At this point, the program is a well-oiled machine and staff are able to efficiently locate the vouchers for the families and get through the lines of people quickly.

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As we were leaving, we stopped to talk with a few people waiting outside. On was a man in his mid-twenties holding his niece, who was still a baby. She was wearing a small sweatshirt and sweatpants, clearly growing out of them as her uncle tried to pull the bottom of her pants back over her bare ankles. He told us that they had been in Jordan for four months now, and that his greatest needs were food and warm clothing for his family.

Standing next to them was a mother with a young son, who was shivering and looking down at the ground. The mother explained that he, along with his younger sister, were blind and desperately in need of winter clothes. Only wearing a light sweater and jeans, the boy was clearly not prepared for the windy and rainy (and sometimes snowy) months ahead. The mother spoke calmly, yet was visibly upset, as she explained her family’s situation, which now consists of living with over twenty-seven family members in a single apartment. Their family had been in Jordan for a year, always thinking that their return was right around the corner until another moment when the conflict would worsen and their time as refugees would remain interminable for the foreseeable future.

Children’s Resiliency Programs: Amman

Out next visit was to see Save the Children’s resiliency programs in another neighborhood in Amman where Syrian refugees are living. When we entered into the building, we were met by dozens of young children, all of whom were Syrian refugees, and who were waving, smiling and laughing. They were partaking in an exercise run by Save the Children staff, in which they were learning to breakdown barriers and get along with other children. Sometimes, we were told, refugees are excluded by others in the host communities, and these activities teach them how to get along with their new classmates, and help them assimilate into their new neighborhoods and surroundings.

The children were acting out and role-playing different situations where one child was being bullied or excluded, and they needed to find a way to incorporate them into their group. All of the acts were very well done, and received standing ovations by the rest of the young children in the classroom when they were finished.

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Next, we all got a chance to play the human knot game, where you link hands with others in your circle and then try to disentangle yourself from the group. Although we all ended up falling down in fits of laughter, still completely tangled in our groups, it was refreshing and endearing to see just that, children laughing and playing, as if they had no other cares in the world.

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We were soon reminded, however, that their lives are far from simple. One girl, nine years old, was sitting outside of the classroom. With deep brown eyes and short brown hair, wearing a long red coat, she was sitting quietly on a couch, talking to a Save the Children staff member, as she kicked her small feet back in forth, only reaching halfway to the ground. We were told that she had lost ten members of her family that very morning. When speaking to another staff member, the young girl quietly said that her father had been shot, but did not go on any further. She did, however, go on to say that she wanted to be at the child friendly space, to be with other kids her age and to play, because, as she explained, she is only a child and she deserves to play.

The stories of the other children went untold, and one can only imagine the atrocities that they have been through and what unimaginable tragedies they have already faced in such short lives. And yet, they sing and dance like other children, they draw pictures of their families, their homes, and the lives they used to live. For some, this was the only classroom-like experience they have ever had, since many are from rural areas from the south of Syria and did not attend school. Despite a lack of formal education, almost all of them dreamed to grow up and become doctors, while others mentioned they wanted to be carpenters and teachers. One very outspoken boy stood up, pointed to himself and with a big smile said that he wanted to grow up and be a “manager.” 

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They seemed happy for the chance to be children again; to laugh, to dance and sing, to dream, and to have a piece of their childhood back. While there were so many children, there are so little signs of childhood except for those experiences afforded to them by Save the Children and other organizations working to help them.

Child Friendly Spaces: East Amman, Zarqa, Ramtha, Mafraq, Irbid  (Center and North of Jordan)

Save the Children (STC) is also running Child Friendly Spaces throughout the host-communities in Amman and Zarqa (Central Jordan), Ramtha, Mafraq and Irbid (North of Jordan), where refugee children come and have structured activities run for them by the STC animators. A consistent theme of the programs and spaces run by the organization are the warmth and color and energy. When we arrived, the children were drawing pictures of their communities, and identifying what they considered to be safe and then more dangerous spaces. Some are still depicting scenes of violence, but overall, they were drawing what came naturally to them, things such as supermarkets, homes, mosques, and roads. Even through art, it is incredible to see the resiliency in these children, and the energy and joy they bring to every activity.

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Abdi’s New Life – Part 2

CAROLYN_MILES_HEAD_SHOT_062001 Carolyn Miles, President & CEO-elect

Hagadera Refugee Camp, Kenya

August 18, 2011


When we last left Carolyn, she had just met Abdi, a 13-year-old boy who travelled to Kenya alone

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On his first day in Hagadera, the day before we met him, Abdi was wandering in the market. "My husband found him crying and stopped to talk to him.  He told him he was alone and his parents had died" said the young woman named Nimo who lives here. "He brought him home to me and now we are caring for him".

I could not help but think how generous these people were.  They lived in a small mud and stick house with a simple open kitchen made of sticks and yet they were willing to take in this little lost boy who needed everything.  I asked Nimo to tell me a bit more about how she came to be in Hagedera camp.

"I came here several months ago from Somalia with my husband because there was so much war," she said sadly.  When I asked about her other children she told me that her first child, born in Somalia, had died from "disease" at 7-months.  Probably something that could be prevented but given the horrific state of healthcare in Somalia, likely the child never saw a doctor or healthworker at all.  I understood a little better why this young couple had wanted to take Abdi in.

As she spoke with us, Nimo kept glancing at Abdi to check that he was okay. She patted his knee to reassure him as we talked.  Nimo told us she wanted to take care of him and we asked what he needed.  "A mattress and supplies so he can go to school next month" she said.  These are things Save the Children will provide, along with the support we give to families who are willing to foster children while we look for their parents or relatives.  Since Abdi's parents are dead, we will search for realtives here in Kenya.

In the meantime, Save the Children staff will come back to visit Nimo, her husband and Abdi regularly to make sure the arrangement is really working and to provide parent and child counseling, help in enrolling him in school, and access to healthcare.

As we said goodbye, I hoped that Abdi would finally find a home where he would be safe in Hagedera.  We asked him if he had yet met any of the curious children peeking through the fence at us and he shook his head.  "He will soon play with them" said Nimo with a smile.  "When he is ready, he will make new friends here".

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Protecting the Youngest Victims of the Food Crisis

David Klauber David Klauber, Save the Children Intern   

Kobe Regufee Camp, Ethiopia

July 27, 2011


Today while half of the team here on the ground was focused on the operation of our Blanket Supplementary Food Program (BSFP) in the Transit and pre-registration Centers, the rest of us turned our attention towards mobilizing our Child Protection program in the Kobe refugee camp. As we drove the 45 miles to Kobe, I began to anticipate a rather surreal experience at returning to this camp.

When I last visited Kobe in early June, one could not have really called it a camp-it was still just a site, merely a large empty space with a few plots marked off by lines dug in the sand. It’s difficult to believe that within a month’s time of it opening (June 24th) it had reached full capacity.

Today there are 24,934 refugees living in Kobe, 88% (21,952) of which are under the age of 18 years old. We arrived and found the recently barren place transformed into a living, breathing refugee camp, overflowing with children.

Two colleagues and I weaved our way through the endless columns of tents. There were hundreds and hundreds of these small white domes that serve as the refugees’ only defense against the brutal environment of the exposed desert plain. Vicious winds periodically kick up the layer of red dust that coats the landscape. One must be quick to shield their face otherwise breathe a nice hardy mouthful. 

As we observed the countless children of Kobe wandering about in these awful conditions with really nothing to do, it became so apparent to me just how urgent the need for Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) is in this environment.

These spaces are an integral component of our Child Protection intervention in all the refugee camps as they provide children with safe zone/structures where they can take a break from the harsh environment and unstable situation. In this protected environment they can play, make art, express themselves, and perhaps most importantly, return to some degree of normalcy after being uprooted from their home and previous life. The child friendly zones also serve as screening mechanism for Save the Children caretakers to identify children in need of additional support or referral to medical services

By the time we left Kobe, the team had secured several sites, contracted local workers from the host community to begin construction, met with the committee of refugee elders/administrators to select community volunteers to help run the program, and put together a training schedule for both Save the Children staff and volunteers. In just two to three more days our child friendly sites sites will be operational and the kids here in Kobe will have a chance to be kids again.

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