Like many toddlers, three-year-old Amena is scared of the dark. But when she wakes up in the middle of the night, there is no comforting light to ease her fears, because Amena is one of the almost-79,000 residents of the Zaatari camp in Jordan that houses refugees from the Syrian civil war, and in the early hours of the morning no electricity powers her simple night light. Instead, her mother pulls her into her lap until she falls asleep again.
Yet despite the dark nights, Amena and her mother feel blessed for the sanctuary that life at the camp in Jordan provides. I meet the pair during one of the women’s meetings held in an Early Learning Centre run by the charitable organisation Save the Children in Zaatari. Around 20 women, some with youngsters like Amena sitting quietly on their laps, meet once a week to learn about healthcare and positive parenting, such as how to make simple toys for their kids. These are women who, on the face of it, have nothing. They live in ‘caravans’ – pre-fabricated blocks, some upgraded with bare concrete floors – provided by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
Such homes are a significant upgrade from the tents that were hastily erected near to Jordan’s northern border with Syria when the crisis took hold in 2012 and thousands upon thousands of refugees flooded over the border, but they are far from the clean, cosy space you or I would wish for our children.
Three-year-old Amena, a resident of Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, with her mother
A PLACE OF STRENGTH
In a stark reminder of the horrors these women fled in Syria, the place where we are sitting became known as ‘the wailing room’. “When the crisis happened, mothers would have to be strong in their homes, so when they came here and dropped off their children at kindergarten, this is the place they would cry and just let everything go,” explains Rania Malki, CEO of Save the Children Jordan. The organisation runs three Early Learning Centres in Zaatari and one in Azraq refugee camp for children below five years old and their families. Annually, 3,600 three-and-four-year-olds at Zaatari receive a kindergarten education at the centres, with additional support provided for their parents. Such is the impact of the project that the mothers’ meeting space no longer echoes with the sound of bereavement. “The beauty of it is that in time it became a place of communion, strength and encouragement. They have a bond now,” says Rania, “it is so beautiful to see how satisfied they are in comparison to what was before.”
Still, there is not a woman in the room who has not been touched by unspeakable tragedy. According to a report by Save The Children* two thirds of Syrian refugee children are said to have lost a loved one, had their house bombed and suffered injuries, resulting in physical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as nightmares, losing the ability to speak, becoming more aggressive and involuntary urination. “Everything we say can’t happen to children, has happened to children. Every violation,” says Misty Buswell, the regional advocacy, media and communications director for Save the Children.
Mothers in Save the Children's Early Learning Centres at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan
“I met a woman who chose the one daughter she had and allowed her to leave Jordan with her uncle in the hope that she’d get naturalisation in another country,” recalls Rania, explaining that many believe girls have a better chance of being granted foreign citizenship by some European countries than boys. “Her daughter was nine years old. Imagine sending your daughter away on a ship and not knowing if she’ll live or if you’ll see her again. What a choice to be forced to make,” she says, adding, “Of course, it is very hard to detach. Some of the experiences these families have been through, it has to touch you. It makes you sad but then you wake up the next day and it’s a driving factor, you feel more energised to make a difference.”
Amid such extreme heartbreak, what is striking is the normalcy of existence in Zaatari, where the dusty walkways have been given makeshift street names, such as Acacia, recalling the plant life of Syria. Ask women what they hope for, and they don’t reply that their children might become a doctor or a lawyer, merely that they might receive an extra hour of electricity today or that the wind won’t blow so hard that the dust causes coughing attacks. Yes, there is hope that one day they will return to Syria, but not until it is safe. And with tens of thousands of people flooding to Idlib in the North West of the country from Eastern Ghouta, there are concerns that, “It’s going to be the next front,” says Save the Children’s Misty Buswell. “There are no safe spaces, really,” she adds, “anyone who has ever lived in an opposition-controlled area is suspected. Even if they had no connection [to rebel groups], they’re suspected. So they have a difficult time in the future. Every Syrian refugee wants to go home but not until it’s safe.”
Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan
“I AM TRYING HARD TO BE A GOOD MOTHER”
Five years ago, when Suhair, now 37, her husband and their five children, including the then one-year-old Haneen, fled their home in Daraa across the border with Jordan, they assumed it would only be for a few months, just until the violence died down. They carried nothing but a few clothes with them. Today, Haneen is an energetic five-year-old who loves dolls and cartoons. Her life is spent between their shack in Zaatari and the dusty trails leading to the nearby ‘Sunshine’ kindergarten, where she and her friends host tea parties for their dolls. Suhair has just started a job as a teacher at Sunshine, and, just like working women across the world, is struggling with the balance between family and career. “With work, the pressure has doubled,” she tells me, “I am trying as hard as possible to be a good mother.”
Suhair’s eldest daughter left camp when she got married shortly after her 18th birthday. “She was 18 and two months,” Suhair stresses, conscious of the education surrounding child marriage that organisations such as Save the Children are promoting. Before the crisis broke out in Syria, around 12 per cent of marriages involved girls under the age of 18. Now, that number is 38 per cent; so in over a third of registered refugee marriages, the bride is under 18, many as young as 12 years old. “It has increased because people are trying to send off their girls due to the economic situation. They think they can protect them like this,” explains Misty. Last year Save the Children prevented 38 child marriages in Jordan, each representing hope of education and a future for the girl involved.
Save the Children is working to prevent child marriages among Syrian refugees in Jordan and provide education and a future for girls, as Bazaar's Louise Nichol discovers
For Haneen, the future is already looking more positive. Now that her mother is working to supplement the income from the modest stall selling snacks and drinks that the family runs outside their home, there will be more money for books and stationary, purchased from the so-called Champs-Élysée – the 3,000-stall makeshift market in Zaatari, whose name is a pun on the alternative name for Syria, Al-Sham, and the iconic Parisian shopping street. Haneen proudly shows me how to write her name in Arabic, followed by her sister’s name. It’s hard to believe that the vivacious little girl practising her letters was introverted and aggressive on arrival at the camp. “There is no extended family around, so there is a strong sense of isolation,” Suhair explains.
Indeed, on their first day at Zaatari, Haneen got lost amid the identikit beige tents, only to finally be found on the other side of the camp after a frantic search. “It was difficult for her,” Suhair says of Haneen’s transition from home in Syria to the camp, “but this has changed a lot after going to kindergarten. Look at her personality,” she laughs as Haneen grabs me to show me her doll, “She is making friendships, she started drawing and writing and she looks at the pencil and paper with a new respect.” And while Suhair’s other children must now bear the responsibility of giving their younger sister breakfast and taking her to class in the morning, Suhair welcomes the sense of accomplishment that her new teaching role has given her. “I dreamed about being a teacher and Save the Children has enabled me to live my dream,” she smiles.
Inside the home of mother-of-five Suhair and her five-year-old daughter Haneen at Zaatari
While Suhair is able to go out and work, there are many women and girls in the camps who are home-bound, and Save the Children runs programmes to teach them vocational skills and financial literacy. Many are given micro-grants to start generating a small income, which has a profound effect on the whole family, Rania says. “They are able to say, ‘I need to be respected’. It changes the whole dynamic in the family. This is particularly important for the young boys in the family to see that the mother is respected and her voice is heard. These programmes change boys’ perspectives to respect women. It changes the next generation of men’s perspectives.”
She recalls one woman who has been through the programme and is now able to command respect for herself from her husband and demand that their daughter be given the chance of an education. “This is a woman who was taught to be submissive and could never imagine standing up for her right to be respected, and who is now speaking with a stronger voice, fighting for her daughter to have a better chance at life,” Rania says, adding, “That means something.”
Five-year-old Syrian refugee Haneen, pitucred with Bazaar's editor Louise Nichol, now enjoys reading and writing thanks to the kindergarten she is able to attend
GEMS OF THE EARTH
Housing around 16,000 families, Zaatari is an endless stretch of white caravans as far as the eye can see. The desert landscape is desolate; glimpses of green are few and far between. Kids roam the dusty streets alone as soon as they can walk, in constant peril from the heavy trucks carrying water to the camp’s tanks. The current craze is to use discarded bicycle tyre tubes as whips, children cracking them ferociously across the dusty earth. In stark contrast to this barren landscape, the Save the Children-run Early Learning Centre kindergartens are a riot of colour and laughter. In one classroom an enterprising teacher has made a life-size Dora the Explorer outfit and is leading a group of four-year-olds through Arabic renditions of If You’re Happy And You Know It and The Birdie Song. The play areas and activities are as sophisticated as you would find in nurseries in any major global city. Stacked tyres containing shoe covers to prevent the classrooms getting dusty have been painted like minion characters. In one corner, children are dressing figures in Velcro outfits to learn about self-care.
In another, giggling kids race plastic cups along two lines of string by blowing into them. Outside, another group are planting, and we dig through the sandy mud with our fingernails to place spring flowers in the ground before watering them. It’s an apt analogy for the kids at the centre, who, despite their barren surroundings, are clearly flourishing under the care and attention of the early learning programme provided by Save the Children. Many of the children playing here today were born in Zaatari and are less haunted than their older siblings who witnessed first-hand the atrocities of war. “A lot of children were born in this camp and so this is all they know. We feel a lot of pride that these children feel hope and happiness,” Nadeen Abu Rub, associate programme director at Save the Children tells me.
Syrian child refugees playing at a kindergarten run by Save the Children and funded by Bvlgari
The kindergartens have been built and run with funds generated by sales of luxury brand Bvlgari’s dedicated Save the Children collection, which was established in 2009 and to date has raised $80 million for the charity worldwide. Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bvlgari, says, “Children are the gems of this planet. If we educate children properly and they are given a chance, mankind gets a chance.” With the Bvlgari Save the Children collection, Jean-Christophe explains that the brand is, “not just selling a jewel, but a dream or a wish,” a wish that a child might have a brighter tomorrow.
Ring, Dhs2,100, from Bvlgari's Save the Children collection
As well as enabling its clients to support children such as Haneen, Bvlgari’s initiative also benefits its own employees. “As a company, it binds people closer, it provides a sense of purpose. Profit cannot be the centre of your purpose. It’s about accomplishing things together, funding programmes that help the community, going beyond the success. It’s about making a difference in the lives of other people,” Jean-Christophe explains.
Since 2014, Bvlgari has contributed over $3.7m to Save the Children’s Jordan arm, which was established in 1974 under the patronage of HRH Princess Basma Bint Talal, aunt of Jordan’s King Abdullah II. As a marque intertwined with the spirit of the Middle East, Jean-Christophe recognises that Bvlgari’s philanthropic commitment to the region is amplified during the Holy Month, announcing a donation of $1.2m this year to further support Save the Children’s activities in Zaatari. “Ramadan is a religious time, it’s a philosophical time, it’s a time also of sharing, of generosity. As a company deeply rooted in the Middle East it’s important that we participate ourselves this Ramadan. We believe that these activities in the region are a contribution to the huge generosity of the Muslim world during Ramadan,” Jean-Christophe tells me.
Bvlgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin outside one of the kindergartens at Zaatari refugee camp funded by sales of the jewellery brand's Save the Children collection
“WE ARE GOING TO FLY AND RISE”
As we enter another of the Bvlgari-funded kindergartens, a facility called Little Hands, a troupe of immaculately choreographed girls perform a dance routine and sing a song written by one of the nursery’s teachers, Aseel Adel, to music composed by Zaatari resident Mohannad Almosalle. “Long ago our song was, ‘Give us childhood, give us peace’,” the girls sing in Arabic, “but now we are going to fly and rise; we are going to grow up and become silk coloured butterflies.”
Their optimism shines through in their eyes and it’s testament to the life-changing power of education that has transformed these refugee children’s futures. Tragically, it’s a far cry from the situation of children still in Syria, many of whom are too scared to go to school. Despite the optimism of the kids at Little Hands, hopes harboured by Zaatari’s residents of returning to Syria don’t look to be realised any time soon. “Parents are afraid to send their kids to school because they don’t know if they’ll make it home,” Misty explains of the Syrians still inside the country, where 1.75 million children are out of school.
In Zaatari, each resident is provided with four pieces of bread a day during the morning bead distribution, and a monthly food allowance of $28 to use in the camp’s supermarkets, funded by the World Food Programme. In contrast, as aid fails to reach those most in need, reports of acute malnutrition in Syria are increasingly alarming. “There was no malnutrition before this conflict,” Misty says of the situation inside the country, “now we have stories of kids fainting in class; because they don’t have enough food to eat, they can’t even stay conscious.” Despite the harsh realities of life outside of their home country, Misty says, “I think it’s better in the refugee context than it is for kids still inside Syria who face other threats.” Indeed 2017 was the deadliest year of the war so far for children, killing 50 per cent more than in 2016, according to UNICEF. Misty recalls meeting new refugees and discovering children who have never encountered fresh fruit. “Kids that have never seen an apple and they don’t know what to do with it. A child got a banana and tried to eat it with the peel,” she says.
Syrian girls at a kindergarten run by Save the Children in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan
In the face of such deprivation it’s no wonder that, “They definitely feel forgotten by the world,” Misty says. “Kids are so resilient and even when they have suffered so much, they still somehow manage to have some hope left. I think you have to show them that there is going to be some kind of accountability, that they will have a future and an education and the community will help them,” she adds of her hopes that the perpetrators of atrocities in Syria will face justice.
Rania agrees that there needs to be a stronger international response to the situation in Syria. “There’s been enough trauma. This is a whole generation affected if we don’t take action now,” she urges. “I hope the international community has a stronger role in stopping the violence and bloodshed. We can end this struggle and we can end it peacefully. Nations never cease to find ways to do this with bloodshed, but there needs to be a stronger push for peace.”
DESPAIR TO GRATITUDE
Visiting Zaatari, what becomes apparent is the incredible hospitality of the Jordanian people in hosting their neighbours in such vast numbers. Only 10 per cent of Syrian refugees live in the camps, with the remainder integrated in the wider community. In 2016 the government pledged to create 200,000 work permits to allow Syrian refugees to seek official employment in Jordan, thereby reclaiming an element of normalcy and dignity. For a country where unemployment stands at 18 per cent and water resources are the second poorest in the world, the strain on Jordan’s national infrastructure is immense.
“Jordanians have always been hospitable people and they stand up to do the right thing on many occasions,” Rania says, explaining that she is often asked why her nation is such a generous host when it has so little. “We have managed to answer why we’re doing this with very simple answers: they are our neighbours and it is the right thing to do. If we can do it, with such little resources, then everyone else can do this too.”
Despite the hardship of life as a refugee, children such as Haneen still find the strength to smile
Ultimately, though, it is the Syrian refugees themselves who best display the resilience and optimism of mankind. “I am always amazed how much gratitude they have. I don’t recall hearing complaints about what they don’t have,” Rania says. “Whenever I ask anyone how they are, they always reply, ‘Thank God’. They are so resilient. I find that is such a lesson to learn from. If they have only this and they manage to say, ‘Thank God’, I think we should be extra thankful.” Such gratitude in the face of despair is something we can all be inspired by this Ramadan.