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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 ...

Neuroscience explains the numbness, violence and apparent callousness so often on display. Many experience what Ms. MacPhail calls “profound stress” – the result not of just a single incident, but of ongoing, traumatic circumstances.

“When you’ve been in life-threatening situations for a long period of time, what happens is adrenalin pumps in and you go into survival mode,” she explains. “Your brain produces adrenalin, and doesn’t switch itself off even, for example, after you leave Syria, because you’re still in an environment that doesn’t have the safety, the security, that you had at home.”

When children are in prolonged “hyper-arousal,” Ms. MacPhail says, they often lose the ability to assess risk, or feel emotion. Many can’t sleep – Unicef had to post security at its playgrounds to keep preteens from lingering long after midnight.

Many parents have no idea how to help their children cope, Ms. MacPhail says, because they too are suffering from profound stress. “These people are absolutely exhausted. They’re exhausted just from sheer survival.”

Key to rescuing the children of Zaatari will be re-establishing the sense they belong to something, whether a school, a sports club, or – if returning to Syria remains impossible – a cogent social order within the camp.

If the international community fails to connect these kids, the implications for the future may be bleak.

“It’s a fertile ground for the recruitment of young people,” Ms. MacPhail concedes. “If we don’t get to these kids now, they will lose not only their sense of values, but their sense of hope.”

Schools with neither electricity nor a steady supply of water

Despite the best efforts of a badly underfunded Unicef, only a third of the 180,000 school-age Syrians living in Jordan (the total refugee population is 600,000) were in classes this week as the new semester began. Similar statistics apply to the broader population of Syrian refugees throughout the Middle East.

Unicef relies heavily on the private sector, which covers about 40 per cent of the cost of schools and sanitation centres it runs in crisis areas. But with Syria’s refugees, private donors appear reluctant, thus far making a mere 6 per cent of contributions to Unicef’s region-wide appeal. So just over half of the $470-million being sought for Syrian refugee children this year has been raised. Aid workers suspect donors view Syria, unfairly, as a political problem, rather than a humanitarian one.

As a result, UNICEF classrooms have only 14,000 spots for Zaatari’s 30,000 school-age kids. (Another 30,000-plus kids are under 6, with 10 newborns arriving every day in the camp’s hard-pressed hospitals.) And the learning environment is far from ideal. School No. 2 is a collection of 70 portable classes surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. There’s no electricity, so no fans or air-conditioning in the blazing desert sun, and water reaches the toilets and sinks only sporadically.

The classes, some with 70 or 80 students crowded into 40 desks, are taught by Jordanians, assisted by Syrian volunteers. Girls go to school in the mornings, boys in the afternoons.

Ottawa native Dominique Hyde is Unicef’s top representative in Jordan, and says that, because of the poor fundraising response, “we’re able to do the basics, but that’s it. The costs are high, the needs are high, and we’re not seeing when this is going to end.”

Water and sanitation projects are also badly underfunded, Ms. Hyde says. “We just cut diapers, so what do the families … do?”

Safe zones run by organizations such as International Medical Corps (IMC) and Save the Children supplement the schools by providing soccer fields, computer labs, art classes and other after-school activities.

But the soccer games easily turn violent, with team-building and sportsmanship often losing out to pushing, shoving and flying fists. A photographer taking pictures in one safe area was threatened by a teen wielding an aluminum bar until friends restrained the boy.

“We try to get them involved in activities the best that we can,” says IMC program officer Ahmad Jaran, but he acknowledges that people like him face fierce competition for the heart and mind of the Zaatari generation.

Banned from recruiting, rebels enlist ‘volunteers’

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