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.
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Katie Welsford is a researcher and writer, commuting between London and Amman.