6 Aug 2013

Survivor mode: refugee children at Jordan’s Zaatari camp

International Editor

Traumatised and exploited, most of the Syrian children in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan are not at school. But as Lindsey Hilsum reports, there are no better options available.

It was the kids more than anything else that struck me in Zaatari camp. 60,000 of them, more than half the camp population, roaming across the dust and the stones of the desert. Kids who used to live in a green agricultural area around Deraa in Syria. Kids who used to study, who thought they had a future. In Zaatarai only a quarter of the children are in school.

13-year-old Mohammed was mending shoes in a little kiosk at the side of the road. “I learnt to do this here in Jordan,” he said. “In Syria I went to school but here I need to earn money.” He had little time for the boys who lob rocks at aid workers (and journalists – our cameraman got one on the forehead). “They have no manners,” he said. “It’s in the blood.”

In Syria I went to school but here I need to earn money. Mohammed, aged 13

By that he meant, it’s all about upbringing, but the parents in Zaatari are also struggling to survive.

I watched Jane MacPhail, a child protection speciaist with Unicef, conducting a session with about 20 boys, aged eight to 12. She was trying to get them to think about the things that made them happy, to reconnect with their emotions. So terrible are the experiences of war these children have endured, their brains are overloaded.

“It’s like a SIM card that just switches itself off,” she explained. “They’re in survivor mode.” That means they have no sense of risk for themselves or anyone else. To prove the point, one chucked a stone at Jane’s vehicle as she left.

Credit: Unicef Jordan

Credit: Unicef Jordan

At night, adolescent boys play shoot ’em up computer games. Blood spatters across the screen, rockets are reloaded, the action is on a loop. That’s no different, you might think, from teenagers anywhere, but here violence is real.

Nearly all have lived under bombing, seen people being killed, feared for their own lives. They told me the computer games are practice for the real thing – they want to go back to Syria to fight against the government.

Adolescent boys told me the computer games are practice for the real thing – they want to go back to Syria to fight against the government.

Children are being exploited. The Free Syrian Army is believed to recruit boys under 18 to go back and fight. Kids as young as seven are employed by smugglers to act as decoys or to fill in the trenches that surround the camp to prevent people from smuggling out donated goods to sell. They know the Jordanian police can’t arrest children.

Walking round the camp, I met three 16-year-old girls. They run the risk of being sold into prostitution or given away for early marriage. “Life here is worse than death,” they said. They didn’t think they had any chance of going back to Syria, nor could they imagine a future. “We will grow old here and die,” they said.

I hope they’re wrong. In the end Palestinian refugees, many of whom have been here since 1947, have integrated into Jordan. It’s a huge strain on this country but as long as the war in Syria grinds on, its hard to see a better option for the children of Zaatari.

Credit: Unicef Jordan

Credit: Unicef Jordan