School is Not An Option

School is Not An Option

Publication info

Johanna Mitscherlich

A dusty road in the city of Irbid in the North of Jordan, about an hour's drive from the Syrian border. Box-shaped houses with small, barred windows are strung together. White colour chips off brown walls, wires are hanging down, rubble piles at the side of the street. Ten year old Maraa lives in one of these houses. A narrow, naked staircase leads to her flat on the second floor. Maraa's mother opens the door and welcomes us into her living room, which serves as both living room and bedroom. Carpets are lying on the cold ground, a light bulb hangs from the ceiling. There are no pictures or furniture. The only contents of the room are matrasses from UNHCR, which lie in every corner, at every wall. “We were allowed to  take these with us from Zaatari, where we stayed the first days after we fled,” Samiha explains. She left Syria with Maraa and her other seven children after her house and the entire village was destroyed and her husband was killed. She shares her flat in Irbid with a total of 20 people.

In the past months I have read a lot about how refugees in Jordan and other neighbouring countries of Syria live. Most of them do not live in refugee camps, but in flats, like Maraa and her family. But while we are sitting on the mattresses on the floor, Samiha tells us her story and there is something in the air, something I have not read about, have not been able to prepare myself for. A gravity, a heavy haze of sadness nebulizes the entire room. Maraa and the other children are silent while their mother is talking. Too silent. Children their age should play and banter with each other. But these children are  leaning motionlessly against the cold wall. Their eyes seem to fix a spot in the room, something to hold on to, to structure the chaos that surrounds them.

“The children need to go to school, not only to learn, but also to forget what they have experienced in the past months,” Samiha says. But neither Maraa, nor her brother, who tries to knot his FC Barcelona jersey, nor any of the other siblings are going to school. “The schools’ waiting lists are full,” Samiha explains. Jordan has opened its schools to refugees, some schools have even introduced a second shift to have enough space for all the children. But in some parts of Irbid and other cities the refugees already outnumber the local population. The capacities are fully stretched. For Maraa’s thirteen year old twin brothers, school is not  an option anymore. They have to work. “How else is our family supposed to survive?”

A few weeks ago, Samiha registered in CARE’s refugee centre in Irbid. Here as well as in centres in the capital Amman and the cities Mafraq and Zarqa, refugees can access information about their rights and the different possibilities to receive aid. Social workers and volunteers, who are refugees themselves, speak to the families, advise and support them with cash assistance and psychosocial aid. Samiha wants to spend this money on rent, to make sure that she and her families have a safe shelter – at least for the coming months.

life in Refuge - Syria Crisis

We are saying goodbye to the family and heading back to Amman. Jallal, one of CARE’s refugee volunteers, who translated from Arabic to English for us, talks about how he feels when he hears all these stories from his fellow Syrians every day. “It is particularly difficult for me to meet women like Samiha, who have lost their husbands. When I register them and ask them about the situation of their family, they might say that everything is okay so far, that their children are healthy, that they have a place to stay. But there is something in their faces, a deep sadness, which tells the real story. This I cannot fill into any form.“

Samiha, Maraa and more than two million other people have fled the war in Syria. But their memories are a constant companion. Their belongings lie under bombed, destroyed houses under rubbish and dirt. But the fear for the ones who are still at home, the grief for family members has travelled with them. Their dreams have stayed at home, as well as their future – especially the future of an entire generation of children, who are not going to school.

A week ago I contemplated what I should pack for my time here in Jordan. Since then I have talked to refugees, who have above all  taught me one thing: The most important things in life can't be packed into a suitcase. Neither safety, nor love for your family and friends, nor your home.