International Children’s Day: Investing in a refugee child’s future means investing in Syria’s future
Salam Kanaan, Country Director of CARE Jordan, writes about the daily struggle of refugee children in Jordan who have to work to make ends meet.
When we think of an 11-year-old we most often think about a child that goes to school in the morning, plays with friends in the afternoon and enjoys dinner with family each night, but for Syrian refugee children, like 11-year-old Hani, this is a fading memory. Hani fled with his family from Homs and now carries heavy boxes filled with vegetables and fruits in Mafraq in the North of Jordan. He starts at eight in the morning and finishes at eight at night. He drags cases from the back of the shop to refill the stalls. He is one of tens of thousands of refugee children in Jordan, Lebanon and other neighboring countries who’ve had to swap school and playground with manual labor. To take care of their family, they were forced to grow up overnight.
Hani is nearly five feet tall and has arms and legs are as thin as matchsticks. He is skin and bones and has trouble lifting the heavy boxes. He is still so small that you have to look very closely to spot Hani behind the tomatoes, bananas, watermelons and peaches in big boxes on a long table. Is it really necessary that a tender creature like him has to struggle with such hard, physical work? Is there really no other option? As a mother of two girls I have asked myself this question several times. Unfortunately, the answer is a very clear “no.”
For most of the three million Syrian refugees in the region every single day has become a struggle to survive. After almost four years since the beginning of the Syria Crisis all of the resources have been depleted. Hani’s father hesitated until he sent his son to work. He has tears in his eyes while he tries to explain his decision. “I do not know what I shall do. I am so ashamed that my child has to work. I cannot find work and am not allowed to legally work in Jordan. I am afraid to be sent back to Syria. For children, the legal consequences are not as harsh. So I hover over my son and try to help as much as I can.”
In a lot of cases women had to flee alone with their children, because their husbands are still in Syria or have died. It is often the young sons who have to work so their family can survive. A CARE assessment in April 2014 has found that only half of the Syrian refugee boys in Jordan are going to school. For girls, the economic struggle of their parents oftentimes means that they marry earlier than they would have in Syria. Parents cannot afford to feed all of their children and face difficulties to survive in Jordan and other neighboring countries. According to UNICEF, in 2012, one out of every five girls would be married. During the first quarter of 2014, it has been one out of three.
Hani likes his job but he is tired when he comes back home after twelve hours of work. His home in Jordan is a one-bedroom flat with mold on the walls, which he has to share with his five sisters and his parents. He spends the approximately two euros he earns daily on buying food for his family and contributing to paying the rent. Hani has only one dream. “I want to go back. I miss my best friends and my Playstation. I want to go back to school to become an engineer and rebuild Homs.”
In addition to life-saving assistance, CARE is providing psychosocial support to Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. In Jordan, CARE has helped more than half a million Syrian refugees, providing financial and social support so that refugee families are stable enough to send their children to school. CARE also created safe spaces, in the Azraq camp and urban community centers in East Amman, Zarqa, Irbid and Mafraq, where refugee children can play safely, read books, and be in an environment where they can feel like children again. CARE also holds activities for women and girls in the safe spaces so that female refugees can have their own time of privacy.
Children are among the most vulnerable part of the Syrian refugee community. We need to make sure that boys like Hani can continue their education and regain a sense of normalcy after nearly four years of conflict and displacement filled with painful memories. It is not only about the immediate term; empowerment is a critical investment in every refugee child’s future and, ultimately, in the future of Syria.