Syrian War -- Women and Children

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan
 Nearly 2.5 million Syrians have fled to Jordan and neighboring countries since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. As the conflict enters it’s fourth year and has escalated into a brutal civil war, it has claimed the lives of 150,000 people and has internally displaced 6.5 million people. It is considered the biggest humanitarian crises of this young century.

On March 2011 a group of young boys spray-painting graffiti anti-government slogans on the walls of their school – it was the “spark that lit the flame” - was the headline in the international media.  A few days later on March 18th, 2011 protesters took to the streets of Deraa demanding the release of all the children, reforms and to the end of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. At first it was a peaceful demonstration inspired by the Arab Spring demanding changes and freedom. In response, brutal force was sent to break the peaceful demonstrators.

As a result of the enormous number of Syrian refugees, the Jordanian government along with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees opened Zaatari camp on July 2012 in order to accommodate those who had leave their homes. Located in Mafraq Jordan, Zaatari became the second largest refugee camp in the world and the fourth largest city in Jordan.

As we approached Zaatari camp I could feel the excitement of a busy city with lots going on. The freeway was being repaired and enlarged since traffic had increased since the opening of the camp.  Buses, trucks and cars were driving in and out of the camp delivering people and supplies. At the main entrance young men and kids waited outside the camp with carts hoping to make a little bit of money by carrying the belongings of those coming and going.  Heavy security with barricades controlled the flux of cars and people. Identification and permissions of those hoping to get into the camp were closely inspected. Noise, dust, chaos…

Walking the dusty streets of this refugee camp situated near the Jordanian boarder with Syria, one could not avoid noticing the large number of white tents and aluminum containers. Zaatari is the new home for approximately 150,000 Syrian’s refugees--half of them children.

Children with a Free Syria Army flag in Zaatari camp.

My first visit was to one of the International Medical Corps clinic. They offer services such as child protection for distressed children, programs about violence against women, protection against early marriage and training courses for women’s health and basic survival skills among others. It was here where I met Azhar – a thirteen-year old young boy from Deraa. When he first came to Zaatari, Azhar was struggling to cope with the aftermath of dislocation from war – living in a tent in a refugee camp. He was traumatized and very angry. Azhar has been living in the camp for over a year now with his family. He has made new friends, is going to school and is feeling much happier now. Like all refugees, Azhar wants to go back home. When I told him I was from Brazil his eyes shinned and he confessed to his dream of becoming a soccer player.

A short while later, I met another refugee Safa who is using her maternal skills to help others.  Twenty-four, married and the mother of two, she was studying economics in Syria. She became a volunteer at IMC’s center even though she had no experience in social services. A bright young woman she felt the need to help Syrian children overcome the myriad social and psychological problems associated with war; it was also a way of earning a little money. As she mentioned “the center is a place where they can come and have some support. It is a place where they feel safe. These kids have been through a lot including violence. The war and sometimes problems at home as well”. Safa wants to return home where her husband had a job and she wants her kids to go to school in Syria. She knows it is going to take a while for her dream to come true.

Most of the people I met in Zaatari camp come from the city of Deraa in southern Syria.  A they mentioned when they took to the streets to protest they never thought it would became a civil war much less for over three years. As the violence escalated families were forced to abandon their homes and lives in search of safety. Most of them crossed the border with whatever little possessions they could carry. Others crossed with only the clothes they were wearing. Some drove trucks to the border where they were met by the police or by the workers of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

On March 18th, Syrian refugees of all ages gathered to revive the beginning of the civil unrest where they expressed their political views against Assad’s regime and showed their support for the Free Syria Army. 
March 18, 2014, while visiting Zaatari camp I watched hundreds of Syrian refugees of all ages gathered to commemorate the beginnings of the civil unrest. They expressed their political views against Assad’s regime and showed their support for the Syrian Free Army. Children were dressed sharply and carried SFA flags. Many were holding out hope for freedom and for dreams of going home. For the ones who were too young to understand they could only follow their parent’s hopes and dreams of a brighter future.

On March 18th, Syrian refugees of all ages gathered in Zaatari camp to commemorate the beginning of Syria’s civil war. They expressed their political views against Assad’s regime and showed their support for the Free Syria Army.

Unfortunately, the future does not look bright for Syrian children when considering their lack of education. It is a very serious problem for Syria as a country and one that it will have to face in the future. They are being called the “Lost Generation”.  The January 2014 “UNICEF Education Services in Zaatari Camp Report” indicated that to date there are three schools operating in double shifts. Morning shifts for girls and afternoon shifts for boys with a total of 20,608 registered students. One of the challenges to school attendance is child labor and household responsibilities especially among boys. Another one is early marriage – a common practice in Syria.

Syrian attending K9 class in Zaatari refugee camp.

Muzoon, 16 years old, is from Derra.  She came with her parents, two brothers and a young sister to Zaatari a little over a year ago. I met this inspiring young woman at International Rescue Committee center. Determined to continue with her education she is attending one of the schools run by UNICEF at Zaatari camp.  Her interest in education, and her sheer willpower to overcome the harsh reality of life in a refugee camp immediately gained the organization’s attention

She was appointed UNICEF’s Ambassador for Education and is working with the organization to raise awareness on the need to attend school. A resilient young woman, she believes her people should not be afraid of their present circumstances and hardships, but think of the future and how they are going to rebuild the country once they are back in their homeland. “We have to be strong and not feel defeated”, she adds.

Young boys hanging out in front of school waiting to go inside for classes
In a 200 square foot aluminum white container, I met 16-year-old Ghalia with her 20-year-old husband Omar. This was their new house. A pretty young girl she was married one week after meeting her husband in Zaatari camp. It was her decision to marry him and not her father. He did agree with her choice but it was not a forced marriage like many. In Syria it is legal for girls to get married at age 15. Also, in Jordan it is forbidden unless in special circumstances and requires a Judge’s ruling. Ghalia wants to become a mother – she has already had two miscarriages and has no interest in going to school.

Everyday life in the dusty street of Champs Elysees - the main commercial street in Zaatari camp where small shops are selling vegetables, basic household equipment, jewelry, cell phones, SIM cards, clothes including wedding dresses among others.

Going for a strolling on the “”Champs Elysees” – on the main street in Zaatari camp you notice the increasing number of small shops selling vegetables, basic household equipment, jewelry, cell phones, SIM cards, clothes including wedding dresses among others. Coffee shops are available where shisha can be smoked. As time goes by life seems normal here in the camp; more permanent structures, better organized and offering more services. There is even a supermarket where they can buy whatever they would like with money or with coupons – their monthly allowance. They seem settled and they are developing a feeling of community with more respect and consideration for each other. There is a general desire to go back home but they are aware it is not going to be any time soon.

While the world’s attention is concentrated on Zaatari camp, the biggest problem facing the Syrian refugees are in the cities and towns of the host nations where 80% of them are living.  In Jordan alone, there are 450,000 registered urban refugees, and they are everywhere.

The socioeconomic effects of the conflict as it enters its 4th year are devastating. The generosity of the Jordanian government is enormous but the large number of people in need is causing serious problems for Jordanian society - high unemployment, rising rents and the draining of the education and health systems since the arrival of the refugees.  Jordanians are resenting their country’s openness with the Syrians. Since their arrival it has become even more difficult for them to find a job, and wages are decreasing because Syrians are willing to take work for less money. As a result tensions are building over work conditions.

Lost everything with the war. She is being living in Jordan with her family for one and half years. She is teaching English twice a week at the Women’s Center in Irbid, Jordan and she hopes to go back home in one day. 
Housing rents are going up very fast as a result of higher demand. Syrian families are sharing apartments to be able to pay the bills. Public schools are overcrowded as well as clinics and hospitals. Tensions between refugees and host nations are rising.

The great majority of refugees prefer to live in the cities because of the more options and better living conditions. Families with children prefer the public schools to the ones provided by the UNICEF in the camps. Under Jordanian law they cannot work and it is very difficult and costly to get a work permit, but a lot refugees work anyway. The latest UNHCR urban refugees report shows a “trend of self-reliance”. In Amman for example, the survey showed 30% of the refugees’ income coming from work”. UNHCR and other organizations are providing some financial help but it barely covers the rent.

In Amman’s city center there is this great hotel packed with foreigners on holiday. They are completely oblivious to the Syrian refugee situation. They do not even notice that the men and women cooking, serving and cleaning are Syrian refugees. They just know enough English to get by with the hotel guests, and they blend-in very well.  

14 years old young Syrian refugee wants to become a lawyer to fight for women’s right.

Budoor is a 25-year-old mother of three. She fled Damascus five months ago with her kids and husband Saleh. They first went to Lebanon but they couldn’t cope with the unbearable situation over there. They came to Amman where she found a job cooking and cleaning at the hotel. She works long hours, seven days a week, but she is happy she said. “It is ok for me right now. We are safe here.” Her family shares a two-bedroom apartment across from her job with another family friend also from Syria. Her oldest son is 6 years old and he doesn’t go to school.  “Yes we want to go back home but for the time being life is ok here in Amman”.

During my visit to Irbid, a one hour drive from Amman, I had the opportunity to visit the women’s center run by the International Rescue Committee and a psychologist who works with victims of war trauma, gender related violence among others. Refugees receive a 2-½ month group session and can participate in various recreational activities such as sewing, crochet, English classes and more.  The center has had a positive impact on the lives of these women. They empower them in preparation for their new lives and help them cope emotionally.

Irbid is where I met Narymman. A 35-year-old woman living in Irbid for 11 months with her 40-year -old husband Ali, who lost his hearing when a rocket landed on their house in Damascus. They lost everything. They tried to cross the border officially with their passports but it was closed. They had to cross it any way, and ended up in Zaatari where they stayed just for a few days. She did not want to live in the camp because after the rocket destroyed her house, her son developed respiratory complications as a result of the dust it created and Zaatari is not the place to be if you cannot breath properly. Also she wants more than anything for her children to attend school. She cannot work and her husband cannot hear anymore.  He picks cans and bottles on the streets for money.  She is in the cash assistance program of IRC and is barely surviving. She doesn’t know what to do…she just cries. The center has provided the psychological support she needs to have hope for a better future where her children can get an education and for her husband to be able to hear them again.

On the right, a Syria refugee from Damascus who lost everything. She is receiving treatment at the Women’s Center in Irbid, as a result of all the distress and forced dislocation caused by the brutal civil war.

At Jordan’s Women Center in the city in Irbid I met a 17-year-old girl from Damascus, Sham. She has being living in the country for 2 and half years. At age 15 she was forced to be engaged to a man she did not like. She had to battle against her family and the Syrian tradition of early marriage. After two years attending the center and under the protection of the program she learned that it is not necessary for her to get married at such young age.  However, Sham has not attended school since she arrived in Jordan. 

A Syrian refugee lay in a hospital bed in Amman, Jordan. Her car was attacked by the regime and she suffered several injuries
Without any sign of an agreement between Bashar al-Assad and the opposition, and with the inability of the international community to help end this conflict, it is expected by the end of 2014 the number of Syrian refugees will reach 4 million. Another camp is opening at the end of April to accommodate the thousands of people that keep crossing the border.

On a hospital bed 8-year-old Farah is waiting for a prosthetic leg. A tank shell landed on her house in Derra. She suffered serious injuries and she was taken across the border for treatment in an Amman Hospital where she met her aunt. She doesn’t remember the last time she attended school. Her parents are still in Syria but as the conflict is far from over they might come to Jordan in the very near future with the next wave of Syrians crossing the boarder.

8 years old girl lost her right leg after a tank shell landed in her house in Deraa. She is been receiving treatment for over six months and is waiting to receive a prosthetic leg. 

For more photos please go to Foto Visura:  http://www.fotovisura.com/user/05051965/view/syrian-refugees

Private Photojournalism: http://privatephotojournalism.com/2014/05/the-aftermath-of-war-through-the-experiences-of-children/

The Globalist: http://www.theglobalist.com/outside-war-syrias-women-and-children-carry-on-abroad/

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