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Young Syrians on the first day of school this week at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan: ‘The behaviour of the students is very aggressive,’ their principal says. ‘They hit each other for no reason. They destroy their school materials.” (Salah Malkawi for The Globe and Mail)
Young Syrians on the first day of school this week at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan: ‘The behaviour of the students is very aggressive,’ their principal says. ‘They hit each other for no reason. They destroy their school materials.” (Salah Malkawi for The Globe and Mail)

Why young Syrian refugees will haunt the Mideast for decades to come Add to ...

Like almost everyone here, he tells a chilling tale about how he came to Zaatari. Involved in the early protests in Deraa, which saw Syria’s first anti-Assad demonstrations in the spring of 2011, he spent three months imprisoned at a military airport after the fighting began. Charged with the deaths of three police officers, he says he had to share a tiny cell with 13 others and was beaten with cables while hanging by his wrists from a bar.

After listening to his tales of savagery, his sons walk up the Champs-Élysées to one of the few sources of entertainment Zaatari has to offer: a small arcade that offers video games for just over 50 cents an hour.

There are nine computers, but everyone is playing the same game, Counterstrike, which pits terrorists against counterterrorists. Players watch over the barrel of a virtual assault rifle as bullets slash through virtual enemies. Also, because the computers are connected, kids can divide into teams and recreate “Regime against Rebels.”

The store manager says he has many other games, but none of the kids plays anything else. “It’s what they know,” he says.

Nowhere is truly safe, especially the washroom – after dark

The girls of Zaatari are scarred too, but tend to respond in different ways. While the boys form gangs and express themselves through violence, front-line caregivers who deal with the girls say they are more likely to withdraw, isolating themselves as much as possible.

The camp is highly unsafe for women. Aid workers suspect violence is widespread within the crowded confines of the family caravan or tent, while sexual abuse takes place anywhere. The communal latrines are especially dangerous, even more so after dark. Unlit and often a long walk from home, they were once protected by locks, which vandals have broken.

“We try to teach them to go with their sister, their brother, their mother, and to avoid going at night,” says Esra’a Amer, a Jordanian psychologist who works with the most badly traumatized kids. “Some families are even building private toilets in their caravans.”

Making matters worse is the conservative culture in which most Zaatari residents were raised. Reports of rape often do not reach camp authorities, since the families would be seen as “dishonoured.” Victims are sometimes forced to marry their attackers, especially if pregnant.

Arranged marriages were commonplace in prewar Syria, at least outside big cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. In Zaatari, the brides are younger and younger, as desperate families run out of assets and trade daughters for dowries.

“My father couldn’t find a job in the camp like what he had in Syria, so he thought he should get me married because he had no money to spend on me,” says Anwar, 15. Her large brown eyes well with tears at the memory of being told she was to marry her 22-year-old second cousin in exchange for several hundred Jordanian dinars (a dinar is worth about $1.50).

Anwar is one of psychologist Ms. Amer’s early success stories, and so far has managed to resist, telling her father she doesn’t want to marry before completing her education. Her dream, she says, is to study English literature in a university.

Her tears flow freely when I ask how common her situation is. “I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about all the girls here. I wish there was a legal rule that no woman is allowed to marry before they achieve their goals. A lot of the girls I know were children when they got married.”

And how do the girls in Zaatari deal with the boys, who seem so angry and prone to violence? “We avoid them,” Anwar says.

‘Brothers decapitated and dragged through the streets’

Jane MacPhail, a Unicefchild-protection specialist, has worked with some of the most damaged youngsters on the planet, including former child soldiers. Nothing prepared the 52-year-old Australian for what she has seen here.

“I’ve talked with kids in Zaatari who are 9 and have watched their brothers decapitated and dragged through the streets. That’s pretty horrendous – and I’m not just talking about a small number of kids,” Ms. MacPhail says .

“We’ve worked with some kids in Zaatari who have been very badly wounded and didn’t even know it: They couldn’t feel pain; they didn’t know when they were hungry, or happy or sad,” she says. “One kid didn’t speak for three months when he first came, because of the things he’d seen.”

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