A few minutes late, he wanders in to join the group. All the other children have started dancing to the music blaring from the iPod speakers. He doesn’t have a name tag, so one of the volunteers takes his hand and leads him over to a table in the corner of the room. “What’s your name?” she asks. “Amir,”* he whispers.
The room is a brightly lit basement that’s part of a block of apartment buildings in the suburbs of Amman. Formerly used as a school for Iraqi child refugees, it today caters to Syria’s displaced children – the ‘luckier’ ones whose families have managed to find a temporary home in Jordan’s capital. On weekends, the basement is being used by a small but dedicated NGO to provide activity days for the younger children of the neighborhood.
Amir is taller than the rest of the kids in the group, and he slouches slightly as if attempting to shrink himself to the height of the other children. His young face looks older than it should. A furrowed brow, a constant worried expression. His arms hang limply, his fingers fiddling with a thread from his green t-shirt – the sleeves of which are still too long for him. As the other children play, he stands rigidly in the same spot, watching timidly.
The Syrian crisis has created an inordinate number of refugees – many of whom are children. Amir is just one amongst 291,398 Syrian children currently living in Jordan, forced from their homes by a war which has turned a country against itself. Whilst they are certainly fortunate in having been able to leave the arena of conflict, for many children like Amir, the pressures of this war have shifted from physical to emotional.
“[Syrian refugee children] may have escaped physical harm, but for them the war zone is just one small part of this conflict.” – Katie Welsford, Emma Pearson
Of course, many Syrian children seem happy – or as happy as one could expect them to be – engaging well with teachers, working hard and maintaining grand personal ambitions – their resilience bearing testament to children’s innocently hopeful visions of the future.
But as a recent report by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, emphasizes, many children are suffering from acute psychological distress. Just like Amir, some show distinct and visible signs of nervousness, depression and an inability to engage with others, having cordoned themselves off with invisible barriers, blocking everything and everyone out. Others show their distress through an inability to sleep, chronic bed wetting, constant crying and speech impairments. Others yet express themselves through anger and violence.
Within Jordan’s refugee camps, facilities are in place to help children deal with the psychological impact of dislocated life and the haunting memories of conflict. But outside of the camps – within the host communities where the majority of Jordan’s refugees are living – there’s little provided. Psychological support for children is limited due to an acute shortage of state-run mental health care services: at present, no specialized child psychiatrists are working with refugees in Jordan, and few teachers are receiving the necessary training for working with refugee children suffering from psychological distress.
Fifty-six percent of Jordan’s child refugees meanwhile are without access to education – either due to their family’s inability to cover transport fees, or because local schools are filled to capacity. Those who do make it to the classroom, tend to go in the afternoons only – the shift system having somehow evolved separating students into two national blocs: Jordanians in the mornings and Syrians in the afternoons. It might not have been intended this way, but families have displayed a keenness for their children to mingle with their own. The cross-over hour between shifts has seen growing tensions - and in some instances violence – between Jordanian and Syrian children. Whilst NGOs have been working to combat these tensions, they are nevertheless still widespread, and for many Syrian children, school is becoming an increasingly intimidating arena.
In many cases, however, families are relying on children to serve as income generators, and child labor is reaching worryingly high levels. Many youngsters are having to work in hazardous environments for menial sums of money. For such children, their worldview has suddenly become one of an adult’s, focused upon the stress of earning the means to keep their families afloat.
The activity day over, Amir and the other children run toward the door. A few of the very youngest children have a sibling, parent or grandparent waiting for them, but most wander off alone. In this somewhat remote suburb, it is safe for them to play on the silent street which winds between the large concrete buildings. But it’s an odd spectacle, an area seemingly populated just by children. They skip in the road, sit in the entrances to buildings, gather in the stairwells, or play on the balconies or in the barren landscape between the buildings.
Few of Syria’s children have the support they need, and many are being forced, very suddenly in one way or another, to act older than they really are. Even though they have escaped the war zone, escaped the sights and sounds that they should have never been exposed to, Syria’s and their own future risk being lost in the chaos of the present.
Just like Amir, each child is negotiating his or her way through a world run by adults, but spoiled by their seemingly childish power games. And while some of the children are able to lose themselves in the dance and craft workshops of their activity days, still far too many are internalizing the isolation of their surroundings.
Children like Amir may have escaped physical harm, but for them the war zone is just one small part of this conflict. Lost in this distant refugee suburb, there is still a battle to be fought. The battle for their childhoods.
* Amir is not the boy’s real name. It has been changed to protect his identity.
This post was co-authored by Emma Pearson.
The views expressed in this Voices post are the authors’ own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you have an opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. And, if you would like to share your own reflections on events or issues about or relevant to the Middle East, we would be glad to consider them for publication. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for a Voices post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your personal blog.
Katie Welsford is a researcher and writer, commuting between London and Amman.
Ed Snowed Us
May 20, 2014
Putin of Russia supplies huge shipments of arms to Assad, to use against his own people, then brushes off outraged queries about sending heat seeking rocket to be fired at civilians, from Russian helicopters, or cluster bombs dropped by Russian warplanes, or barrages of Russian artillery shells, most infamously used on Homs.
Then he has the nerve to not pay Russia’s fair share of the cost of providing for millions of refugees, with the U.N. asking for $6.5 BILLION just for this year.
Money that could be used for free schools and counseling, and remedies for disfiguring scars, missing limbs, birth defects due to POISON GAS attacks.
May 13, 2014
if people would read the bible. we would know god came in all different shape size and color. so when Christians, muslim,jews, etc…………that is there god. but all in reality, he is only one. what bothers me is that I am mother and grandmother, child is innocent, and reading what is going on , in Syria! my heart is broken. I would do anything to help them. when the end comes we will be one.
March 2, 2014
Not only do we have a physical war on the ground.. we have keyboard missiles flying all around this hate-filled internet.
Alfredo Ibarra Barajas
February 26, 2014
The thing is that it is all very confusing some Arabs see the rebels as the evil ones and to Assad as just defending his people from massacres and rapings, others see it the other way around, Assad as the evil one. One does not really know what is going on. We try to be informed and worry, emphatize with their suffering. What else we can do, just pray. It is not in our hands to solve anything. We raise our feeble voices, but that is it.
Mark J. Carter
February 24, 2014
Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Atheist; when we stand silent in view of injustice we ALL become complicit in it. It matters not whether we pray to a God or a Goat; in the end we shall all pay dearly.
February 18, 2014
Mr. Joe …. i think you can give some money to UN or another Syrian famous organizations who help children Actually ,,, i think you can find in USA who help Syrian refugee .
February 15, 2014
How can we help?
February 2, 2014
where ever these people live they kill each other. Afghanistan, egypt, syriua, pakistan, tunesia, yeman, sudan, iraq, iran, bangladesh Its their fault.
February 2, 2014
Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded by US and Blackwater planted bombs in market and mosques to create division to secure their conquest.
Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt & Syria are going through an awakening called the “Arab Spring”. Here, the majority have decided to rebel against their slave masters and they will win. The Saudi’s, the Zionists(like you) and the other slave masters we call (dictators) are trying to put down this rebellion by force and hence the bloodshed.
Simple racist comments only highlight your hatred for Muslims.
February 6, 2014
Islam is an ideology. Therefore Muslims are not a race.Which would conclude he is not racist….We will not let you have your caliphate so you can make the world bend the knee to your 1400 year old fairy tale. Your religion preaches death and so it brings death upon itself. I am not affliliated with any religion so don’t stick some label on me like “Zionist” like you did Stel En. Now go fly a horse to the heavens and leave the rest of us on earth in peace.
February 6, 2014
So what should happen? Eradicate all of these people or strip them of their faith? It might not be racism, but it is a form of hatred, like saying the word ‘anti-Semitic’ when someone has insulted those of the Jewish faith or origin. You have stated that you are not affiliated with any religion yet you would go on to insult the Islamic faith, further spreading hate. I get it: if Islam is a fairy tale, then they all must be. That goes hand in hand with what you believe or perceive of life and religions. Here’s a tip for you: Educate yourself of any faith before you try to speak foul of it. This is in hopes of diminishing ignorance. Once we get over the childish hurdle of “your faith sucks and mine is better” then we can actually focus on the important things: “Your country, its people and children are suffering, I want to help you because its the right thing to do. Because if my people show your people what kind and friendly people we are, then in turn i know you will do the same. There might come a day when we look to you for help, may that day never come, but it would be nice to know that you guys will have our backs.” If a part of you is saying…”yeah okay, a cold day in hell before that happens”…, then look at yourself and try to work on that part of you. Simply put, our actions today will affect future generations. We must work together as a Human unit; respecting one another and our planet.
February 6, 2014
With all that hate in your heart, you may fall ill soon.
People live off each others happiness, not misery.
Your preaching hate,
Here is a lesson in Islam:
Islam as taught by our father Adam, and Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad peace be upon them is about your relationship with the one and only creator. You can be thankful for his blessings on you or reject Allah and deny the fact that he is your sustainer
Alfredo Ibarra Barajas
January 28, 2014
Very sad indeed, there is no denial that this earth is a veritable vale of tears for many, but how sad is to see children suffering, when they should be playing and not working.