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Five Things I Learned in Syrian Refugee Camps

First published on National Geographic

By Aziz Abu Sarah

Teaching Syrian refugee kids about photography

I recently spent a few weeks at this camp along the Turkey-Syria border with my Syrian colleague Nousha Kabawat, and six other volunteers who operated the summer camp.

These were deeply traumatized children—some 75 of them were orphans—and we designed their activities to provide enjoyment and educational instruction.

Many of these children yearned for the kind of school learning that most children take for granted, but which is not generally available in refugee camps. We also brought food and gifts with us.

I was heartbroken to witness bereavement and sometimes even the first expressions of radicalization and cynicism in these kids. Still, on many occasions I was  encouraged to see them smiling despite their pain, hopeful in spite of their losses, and determined to keep their dignity.

This was my third trip to meet and work with refugees in Syria, Turkey, and Jordan. These successive visits have widened my perspective and made clear some uncomfortable truths.

1. Many refugees are not counted.

The real number of refugees is much higher than we think. The United Nations officially estimates that there are more than two million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. This number refers to refugees who registered with the United Nations upon leaving Syria and arriving in a refuge country.

However, through my travels I met many Syrians in Turkey and Jordan who have not registered as refugees and therefore are not included in the UN total. In a refugee camp in Turkey's Hatay Province, I met with a poor family that had arrived from Homs just ten days earlier.

The kids told me that they were homeless, but that sometimes other families host them for a day or two. This family, like many, many others, has entered Turkey illegally. Such refugees who did not enter their refuge country legally are not counted in the UN's numbers.

2. The host countries are in crisis.

Host countries are struggling to absorb the large numbers of refugees with their current infrastructure. To understand the severity of the refugees' situation and the host countries' inability to cope with the influx, imagine the situation in Lebanon, where a population of 4.2 million people is hosting 716,000 Syrian refugees. No country in the world has the ability to cope with a 17 percent increase in its population over a mere 12 months.

Neighboring Jordan, which had a major problem with water before the arrival of Syrian refugees, found itself in a water crisis this past year. In May, when I visited Jordan's Za'atari camp—now home to 144,000 refugees—there were long lines to fill bottles of water, and Jordanians outside the camp complained continuously about their lack of water.

Another challenge facing host countries is that many refugees don't live in camps. Some of these refugees live in poor conditions with less help from international organizations, but they prefer being free to being in fenced-in camps.

3. Children's education is being neglected.

Host countries face a major problem adjusting to the needs of refugee children, who comprise more than half of the refugee population. Absorbing them in the current school system is impossible, but starting new schools that can accommodate such numbers and finding qualified teachers, funding, and facilities has proved to be extremely difficult. There is barely any monitoring to guarantee the schools' quality, and in its absence, radical ideas can easily become part of the curriculum.

Many children have not gone to school in the past two years. Ahmad, a six-year-old who was displaced to Atmeh camp in Syria, told me that the camp couldn't start a class for first graders because they didn't have books and materials for it. Ahmad's younger sister was killed in a bombing at their home before his family escaped. He receives no form of education.

Ahmad wasn't the only one telling me these stories. Most children I met in all the countries I visited are not attending any school and not receiving any form of education. Lujayn, an eight-year-old refugee girl in Turkey, told me that she loved the math instruction she received at summer camp, but she hasn't gone to school in two years. Her family hopes to emigrate to the United Arab Emirates and has been waiting for the necessary papers for the past few months.

The international community—already overwhelmed by the basic humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees—is in no position to adequately respond to the critical challenge of education. Unfortunately, in the midst of an armed conflict and dire humanitarian need, education is seen as a secondary need. However, five years from now, due to this lack of foresight, the world will have to deal with an uneducated and very possibly disenfranchised generation that is ripe for radicalization.

4. Many Syrian refugees are still in Syria.

More than four million Syrians are displaced within Syria. Many people are unable to leave because of border restrictions, ideology, the belief that they should not leave their country, or fear of crossing to the unknown. Some go to camps, while others stay with family in other towns or put up their own tents wherever they can. On one occasion, an elderly woman who had lost her house asked my colleague Nousha if she could smuggle her to Turkey on our way back from Syria.

The living conditions in camps within Syria are much worse than in those in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan. Lack of food, medicine, and water is apparent. Perhaps the saddest story I heard was that of a family that was separated during the bombing of their neighborhood. Only the mother and a son managed to stay together and are still unable to find out what happened to the rest of the family.

Unlike refugees in camps outside Syria, displaced Syrians—whether they are in camps or not—are within firing range and therefore always in danger. Many displaced people have been displaced multiple times in their search for safety.

5. Refugee camps are like a prison.

The moment you enter a refugee camp, you are registered and confined to a gated and fenced space that you are not allowed to exit and re-enter of your own free will. The camp is guarded by armed police officers who control your daily routine. Perhaps the worst thing about camps is that there is no way to be productive. Camps offer no work possibilities, and just like in prison, you receive your daily portion of food and water and are asked to wait, hopelessly, passively.

Some Syrians cannot bear these conditions and decide to return to Syria despite the danger. When I visited the Za'atari refugee camp, I saw a line of about a hundred people in front of the camp's Jordanian management office. They were requesting permits to leave the camp and return to Syria immediately, despite the dangers they knew awaited them.

The future of Syria will not be decided only on the battlefield. It will also be decided by millions of refugees and displaced people. Despite intense need in many other humanitarian areas, the international community must focus on education, health care, and trauma therapy so that these Syrians can contribute to a better future for their country when the armed conflict is over.

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