This blog post is featured as part of the AIYD Youth in Focus blog series Beyond Emergency: How Conflict Impacts Global Youth. Each week members of the Alliance for International Youth Development will address issues facing global youth impacted by conflict, underscoring challenges including livelihoods among urban youth refugees and access to basic education in times of conflict, among others.
By Sarah Smith, Director of Children and Youth Protection Development, International Rescue Committee
Lana* is only 15 years old and what she has seen and experienced would be unimaginable to typical teenagers. But her story is all too common for Syrian refugees her age. She talks stoically about her five-month odyssey fleeing Syria. Her family fled Homs nearly a year ago, as fighting engulfed the streets of that western Syrian city. They moved into a rented apartment in a village near the capital, Damascus. But when violence surged there, they had to pack up and move again, and this time, the family decided it was time to leave Syria altogether. Lana, her mother and an uncle were among nearly 60 Syrians attempting to cross a desert border into Jordan at two o’clock on a moonlit morning last fall. As they approached Jordan, the group came under fire from Syrian border guards. Lana managed to get across the border with others in the group, but her mother and uncle were pinned down behind a boulder for hours before they were able to safely enter Jordan.
Every night, when darkness decreases the chances they’ll be shot, an average of 5,000 refugees, half of them children, flee from Syria into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. There are now more than 930,000 Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration. While the refugees find save haven in these countries from the spiraling violence at home, myriad hardships continue. The rest of Lana’s family trickled into Jordan in the ensuing months. She now lives in a three-room apartment with five siblings and her parents. She—like 70 percent of other Syrian refugees--has become what we in the humanitarian world call an “urban refugee,” meaning she doesn’t live in a refugee camp. And she prefers it that way. “Living outside is much better,” she says. “The food is bad in the camp, you have to share bathrooms and kitchens, and you can’t come and go.”
Unlike camp-based refugees, urban refugees must pay for their own housing, food, electricity and water. Many who can’t afford rent and other services find shelter anywhere they can and struggle to get by. And while refugees in Jordan receive monthly $30 food vouchers from the United Nations and periodically receive donations of food from aid agencies, Lana says it’s not enough. Many young people have been forced to work, some in dangerous or exploitative jobs that are largely under the table. Most don’t have the legal right to work because host countries fear they will take jobs away from their own citizens. Lana says her cousin dropped out of 10th grade to earn money at a fruit stall, but stopped due to fear of arrest. Her father had been working in construction in Jordan, but he too had to quit last week because police are cracking down on the illegal employment of refugees. “He used to be so calm,” Lana says. “Now he’s nervous all the time and worries about his responsibilities as a father.” The family became even more concerned a week ago when they learned, during a phone call to relatives back in Homs, that armed men had seized Lana’s 24-year-old brother. They still have no idea where he is or how he is.
Countless young Syrians like Lana have witnessed unthinkable violence and live with tremendous fear and anxiety. They have no one to go to for support, and few parents and teachers know how to help them. One of Lana’s coping mechanisms is to avoid thinking about home. In the early days she and her friends used to watch the news about Syria on television, but not any more. “It makes us angry and frustrated to see what’s happening there, so now we only watch entertainment shows, to escape,” says Lana.
Lana’s main outlet is school. The Jordanian government, like other countries surrounding Syria, has opened its schools to refugee children. Lana says class work is fairly easy and her schoolmates are all refugees like her. But Lana is lucky. Many Syrian children have missed two years of school and wonder if they’ll ever resume their education. Classroom space is severely limited in host countries, and many parents can’t afford the required clothing and books. In some host countries, Syrian families are afraid or unable to register their children for school and they are concerned about language barriers and social tensions. What frustrates Lana most as a refugee? It’s her awareness that some in Jordan are openly resentful that the refugees receive aid. “I do understand why some poor people may envy us,” she says. “But for me, the word refugee is painful and sad. I would be happy to change places with them.”
*Lana is not this teen’s real name. It has been changed to ensure her privacy.
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Photo courtesy of Peter Biro/IRC
Syrian refugee children at an ad hoc school in Berkayel, Lebanon. While host countries have opened up schools for refugees, there are not enough spaces.
About the author: Sarah Smith oversees International Rescue Committee programs for children and youth in the Syria region and in some 20 other countries impacted by violent conflict and disaster. Smith has worked in education and child protection for 15 years.