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Return to Zaatari: A lost generation of Syrians in the making

Mark MacKinnon in Jordan: In a refugee camp housing the growing exodus from Syria, teenagers are being put out to work or married off as parents struggle to make ends meet

Children play soccer at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on Dec. 12, 2015.

Children play soccer at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on Dec. 12, 2015.


The first time I met Halim Mahameed, he told me of how he'd been tortured for two straight days by Syrian security forces. Almost robotically, the then-14-year-old recounted how he'd been tied up by Bashar al-Assad's men the previous year and whipped with electric cables because he'd been seen helping to carry the wounded away from an anti-regime demonstration in the early days of Syria's conflict.

Things should have gotten better for Halim after we met in the fall of 2013. He was then in a Unicef-run school in Jordan's sprawling Zaatari refugee camp. And while some were already warning of a traumatized "Zaatari generation" growing up angry among the four million Syrian refugees scattered around the Middle East, the case workers who introduced me to Halim said he was a success story in terms of how well he was mentally processing the ordeal he'd been through in Syria.

But the world ignored the warnings. And life has gotten worse for the Zaatari generation.

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The Globe’s reporters reflect on the international stories that moved them and changed us.

When I returned to Zaatari for two visits earlier this month, I sought out Halim Mahameed among the maze of metal caravans and canvas tents in the Jordanian desert, hoping to find out what had happened to him since our first meeting.

To my dismay, he was no longer in school. His family, which like many Syrian refugees around the region has struggled to make ends meet as food stipends and other international aid dwindle, pulled Halim out of the Unicef classroom last year and found him a job working alongside his father in one of the Jordanian farms outside the gates of Zaatari.

He makes one Jordanian dinar – about $1.40 (U.S.) – an hour picking olives and tomatoes. He'll likely never see the inside of a classroom again.

"My dad's back was hurting, so I started going to work with him. Now our financial situation is better than before," Halim says with a shrug.

Halim Mahameed, a 16-year-old from Daraa, at his home at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on Nov. 29, 2015.

Halim Mahameed, a 16-year-old from Daraa, at his home at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on Nov. 29, 2015.


His face – still marked with traces of the scars given to him by Mr. al-Assad's thugs – is expressionless as he speaks. It's black-and-white to him. The family had no option. He claims he didn't like school anyway, and says he can envision no other future.

Halim's father, Hayyam Mahameed, lays out the economics behind the family's decision. As Halim's twin three-year-old sisters grew older and started eating more, the family started running through the $141 a month they receive from the World Food Programme faster and faster. Mr. Mahameed says the WFP aid now lasts the family of five "about 10 days" in Jordan, where food costs are high.

"When Halim left school, it was a stab in my heart, but he had to leave," says 47-year-old Mr. Mahameed, who worked as a salesman in the southern Syrian province of Daraa before war broke out in 2011. "Before the war, we were paying for Halim to get extracurricular education. He's my only son."

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From the archives: Listen to the dreams of Syrian kids living in Zaatari in 2013



The Mahameeds' story is sadly common among both Zaatari's 79,120 residents, as well as the wider Syrian refugee population scattered through Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Of the 4.3 million Syrian refugees in the region, 51 per cent are kids age 17 and younger; 38 per cent are under the age of 11.

Despite all the warnings of a generation growing up in desperation – and the troubles that could cause for the Middle East and the world – the international community came up with only 45 per cent of the $4.5-billion that United Nations agencies asked for to meet the basic humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees in 2015.

The shortfall has led to falling WFP food aid – the monthly stipends received by many refugees have fallen by half or more in the last 12 months – as well as a lack of classroom space for refugee children around the region.

Between Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, there are an estimated 700,000 school-age Syrian kids who are not in classrooms this year. Part of that is a simple lack of schools. But the economic crunch is also playing a big role.

Boys are leaving school so they can take menial jobs to earn money for their families. Girls are having their educations cut short so they can be married off at younger and younger ages, thus reducing the number of mouths a family has to feed. Begging Syrian children – both during school hours and late into the night – are now common sights on the streets of Middle Eastern cities.

"We have seen evidence of increasing child labour rates, increasing child marriage rates. Families are adopting what I call negative coping mechanisms," said Robert Jenkins, a native of Orillia, Ont., who heads the Unicef country office in Jordan. "The scale of this crisis does run the risk of threatening the ability of a whole generation of children to reach their potential."

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Mr. Jenkins, like most of those working with Syrian refugees, is a big fan of the Liberal government's effort to resettle 25,000 refugees to Canada over the next three months, and says Canada – which has contributed $107.7-million to the $4.5-billion appeal, including $31.6-million that went to Unicef – has long been one of Unicef's biggest and best donors. But more needs to be done. The UN has just appealed for another $4.55-billion to aid displaced Syrians around the region in 2016.

"We are losing the battle to have no lost generation" – that is how Hovig Etyemezian, the manager of Zaatari camp, puts it. "It's not about of a lack of will. … It's a lack of resources."

Three and a half years after it opened, Zaatari remains a dusty and barren place. There's a lively market street – stuffed with shawarma joints, mobile-phone shops, tiny mosques and wedding dress stores – and a growing sense of permanence to the place. Many of the tents I saw in 2013 have been replaced by metal caravans. But there remains little in the way of education, jobs or hope.

For children and teens, the situation is even grimmer. Organizations like Unicef and Save the Children run admirable schools and clubs, but there are only enough teachers and classroom spaces to run the schools part-time. Girls attend for three hours in the morning, boys for three hours after lunch.

There's no postsecondary education of any sort, and – with countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait providing much of the funding – Zaatari has 76 mosques to just 11 schools. Residents refer to a day trip anywhere beyond the camp's perimeter – a privilege that requires spending hours in line to apply for – as "a vacation."

Bashar Ibrahim, 13, breaks an electrical transformer to construct a toy house for children in the camp.

Nine-year-old Bashar breaks an electrical transformer to construct a toy house for children in the camp.



Visit the camp on a Friday – when the mosques are open but the schools and clubs are closed – and you see the point where anger and boredom collide for Zaatari's youths.

A nine-year-old boy, Bashar, starts his Friday morning by dashing onto the market street and smashing an electrical transformer he's found onto the dusty pavement. Nothing happens, so he picks it up and smashes it again and again until a tiny U-shaped piece of metal jars loose. A smaller boy cheers with glee and picks it up. The tiny pieces of metal, a third boy explains, can be bent into makeshift toys. At a nearby playground, loosely supervised by Mercy Corps staff, two little boys – perhaps five years old – beat another boy with their fists until a little girl chases them off by hurling rocks.

Among the few entertainments are the mini-arcades scattered around the camp, small shops each crammed with a dozen or so ancient computers where teenage and pre-teen boys spend hours playing games that always seem to involve shooting automatic weapons. "They're practising to return to Syria," says Khalid al-Ibrahim, with a bitter laugh. The 49-year-old father nonetheless says he gives his son enough as much money for video games as he can spare, preferring that his boy spend time in the arcade rather than aimlessly wandering the camp. "I have to watch my son 24 hours a day. If he does something wrong, the whole family can be sent back to Syria."

Aid workers in the camp say that active recruiting for the various rebel factions fighting in Syria has eased over the past two years, but Mr. al-Ibrahim says there are still gangs at work in Zaatari that use children and teenagers to help smuggle forbidden goods over the camp's sand-berm perimeter, which is guarded by armoured Jordanian military vehicles.

"If we could get out of here, it would be better," says Mr. al-Ibrahim's 13-year-old son, Bassem. Both he and his father refer to Zaatari as a "prison."

Defence Minister joins Canadian delegation at Jordan’s largest refugee camp



Another of the kids I met in Zaatari two years ago was a 15-year-old girl named Anwar who was battling to stay in school against her parents' attempts to marry her off to her 22-year-old cousin in exchange for a dowry of several hundred dinars.

Anwar, one of the smartest kids I've met anywhere, was desperately trying to convince her parents that it would pay off in the long term if they would just let her finish her education. She dreamed of studying English literature in a foreign university.

"I wish there was a legal rule that no woman is allowed to marry before they achieve their goals," she told me that fall, tears streaming unchecked down her cheeks. "I'm not talking about myself, I'm talking about all the girls here."

My heart sank when Unicef told me this week that Anwar had lost her battle. She's married now, and somewhere in Syria.

Another member of the Zaatari generation who has slipped away.

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe's Senior International Correspondent.


The year in photos As 2015 draws to a close, Globe and Mail reporters reflect on the year that was, through some of its most compelling images.


Refugee family finds hope, health and home in Edmonton The Dalaas family are among the first wave of an expected 25,000 refugees from Syria the government has pledged to bring to Canada by the end of February. Here's how they're settling in.
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