Arriving at Za’atari, it’s hard to see where its boundaries are. It’s a vast and sprawling town of tents and caravans. With a population of about 84,000, it is one of the largest refugee camps in the world, opened in July 2012 to host Syrian refugees forced to flee their homes as a result of the civil war.
War Child UK has been working in Za’atari since October 2013, providing informal schooling and psycho-social support, as well as campaigning to promote education and to combat child labour and early marriage.
With War Child UK, I met 11-year-old Ritaj. We sat down with a glitter craft kit while she told me about her life in Syria. At first, it could have been a conversation with one of my friends’ children. Her family lived on a farm where she spent her days climbing trees and playing. Their house had four floors; they kept chickens and loved their dog, Lulu.
One day she went to the supermarket to buy some sweets with her brothers and sisters. A bomb dropped near them. They all fell to the ground but when Ritaj stood up she was shocked that her sisters didn’t. They remained on the floor, covered in blood.
“I started calling the men to help. They took them to our neighbour’s house because there is a doctor there. The next day when the army found out they were hiding there, they burned down the house. The army asked for my father. I was scared,” she told me.
“There were bullets and teargas bombs. I remember the sounds and smell of those bombs. The army was trying to get a man to tell them where my family was. They tied his hands to a car and dragged him down the street. That’s when we decided to leave.”
In war, children see things beyond their imagination. This isn’t without consequence. For weeks, Ritaj wouldn’t attend classes without her mother and would cry if someone made a loud noise. Slowly, she’s making progress. Beginning to process the trauma she has experienced.
By attending War Child classes on dealing with emotions, conflict, peace and the future, Ritaj is being given tools to handle the challenges she faces in her life in the camp, and those she is likely to face in the future.
And she will face challenges. Once you become a refugee, you’re a refugee for, on average, 17 years. Babies will be born today in Za’atari and might well face their entire childhood without the protection, education and opportunities so central to becoming a well-rounded adult.
Right now, the world is neglecting these needs. Children account for half of those affected in conflict but less than 5 per cent of global humanitarian aid is dedicated to keeping them safe, and in school.
A decade ago, Syria had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Today, well over a million Syrian children are out of school; three out of five children are being denied their right to education.
These are the girls and boys who will, hopefully, one day rebuild Syria. They cannot do that if they are illiterate, innumerate and broken. People speak of a “lost generation” in Syria, but we can prevent it — if there is a commitment to provide every refugee child with an education.
Nowhere does that feel more pressing than in Za’atari. The majority of the people who call Za’atari home are children. And when I visited the camp, there were just three schools. Three schools to meet the needs of thousands and thousands of children. Places are in short supply and classes are crowded. Even with a shift system and a commitment to build another six schools in the next 12 months, access to education is dire, and that’s before we even consider the quality of that education.
It’s unjust, but not inevitable. My motivation in calling for a commitment that every refugee child has an education is simple: the future. A million children’s futures with education, and their futures without it. This became all the more clear as we sat in on a session with a group of young girls at Za’atari. The facilitator was asking what they wanted to be when they grew up and their answers were impressive, to say the least.
A room of smiling future doctors, lawyers, judges and engineers excitedly explained why they were passionate about their education and how it would enable them to pursue these dreams. Startlingly, the last girl to step forward quietly but confidently explained: “I want to be an architect. So that if my house is destroyed, I’ll know how to rebuild it myself.”
The War Child team in Jordan, and across the world, work incredibly hard to protect, educate and counsel the children who have lost so much in this crisis, and many others. They are doing exceptional work with ever increasing numbers of children and their families, to help them cope with situations so distressing that it’s impossible for most of us to ever really understand.
But I passionately believe their work needs funding to grow — to reach more children like Ritaj. And I passionately believe that a “lost generation” of Syrians is not inevitable. I can’t think of a more elemental commitment than to ensure that every school-age child has an education. As a new mother myself, I see no difference between my priorities for my daughter and every Syrian mother’s wish for their children; to keep them safe and in school.
By putting children’s protection and education first, we can save a million futures. We can and we must.