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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/The Globe and Mail

The cruel, pointless torture of young Halim Mahameed went on for two days."The security forces took me and beat me. … They tied my whole body up and they whipped me with electric cables," the diminutive young Syrian says matter-of-factly.

"Why?" is the only response I can muster in the silence that follows. The 14-year-old smiles sadly before continuing.

"I had gone to some demonstrations and, when people were killed and injured, I helped with the ambulances. Someone from the security forces saw me and put me on a list."

Then it's time to stop talking. He has an exam to write.

Halim is at school in Zaatari, a sprawling refugee settlement in the Jordanian desert 15 kilometres from Syria. It opened just over a year ago and is now home to a staggering 130,000 people, a small fraction of the two million who have fled Syria, but enough to make it Jordan's fourth-largest "city" and the world's second-largest refugee camp. He should realize he is safe now, but it is clear that the children of Zaatari – and those under 18 make up more than half of the population – feel anything but secure.

Physical threats may be largely behind them, but deep psychological scars remain. Teachers who ask them to draw pictures of their old homes are handed back scenes of tanks and airplanes bombing villages filled with dead bodies, or sometimes just pages covered in furious black scribbles. The spaces between the tents and mobile homes known here as caravans are vast imaginary battlefields, places where kids play "Regime against Rebels," hurling rocks and carrying out mock torture and executions.

Even when not playing, "the behaviour of the students is very aggressive," says Salem Elayyan, principal of Halim's school, one of three that are run by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef). "They hit each other for no reason. They destroy their school materials." His classrooms are so ruled by violence and intimidation that many families prefer to keep their kids at home.

Child-protection workers – including veterans of other war zones – say they've never before seen children like this.

Some fear that Halim and the kids of Zaatari are a tormented and angry "lost generation" that will haunt the Middle East and the world for decades to come.

Even if the war ended tomorrow and they could all go home – increasingly unlikely as prospects of international intervention fade – it's hard to imagine these predominantly Sunni Muslim kids living in peace beside those who fought for the regime, and the Shiites and Christians who broadly supported President Bashar al-Assad. A long cycle of rage and revenge may be inevitable.

"This Zaatari generation is going to be living outside Syria, with all their memories, disenchanted with their situation. This is going to be an alienated group of people with no focus and no objective," warns a Jordanian government official, speaking on condition he not be identified.

He recalls the displacement and anger among those driven from their homes by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. And that was a war fought without public beheadings and sarin gas attacks.

"In the 1960s and 70s, you had children growing up in the Palestinian refugee camps. They became groups like Black September. The camps were the breeding grounds for all these groups, Abu Nadal and others," he says.

"These Syrian youths in the camps have nothing to lose, and that's very dangerous."

The 'mayor' of Zaatari was narrowly missed by a rock

Zaatari's desert location is so inhospitable that aid workers were in disbelief when it was initially offered to them. The sun is relentless, and there's no natural shade, forcing refugees to stay indoors as much as possible. Water was already scarce in Jordan before 130,000 more people moved into the most arid region of the country.

Parts of Zaatari hum with commerce, and children at play, but much of the camp, which is surrounded by a sand berm and armoured personnel carriers to keep people from going in or out, sits in a sweltering silence broken only by the call to prayer sung five times a day from 60-plus makeshift mosques.

Kilian Kleinschmidt calls himself Zaatari's "mayor." As local head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which has overall responsibility for the camp, he is the closest thing it has to an authority figure. The gruff German controls the distribution of everything from food rations to the prized caravans he hopes all residents will move into eventually. Half the population still lives under canvas, which offers little protection against the coming winter.

With his tough, direct talk, the 50-year-old Mr. Kleinschmidt – who has such hot spots as Afghanistan, Kosovo and Somalia on his résumé – has earned the respect of most older refugees, who see him as battling hard for their interests. But he can't seem to win over the children. "They're a major headache," he says bluntly. "Sixty thousand kids who are bored and traumatized."

Mr. Kleinschmidt knows first-hand just how dangerous that combination can be. He was walking down the camp's main market street this spring when a boy of about 10 narrowly missed him with a rock.

Rocks are hardly in short supply. In an effort to keep down the sand and minimize the ferocity of the daily dust storms, UNHCR laid a carpet of stones – a decision Mr. Kleinschmidt now regrets. "The UN provided these kids ammunition for the next 20 years," he says with a sigh. Many aid workers' cars have cracked windshields.

Fed up, he decided to give chase down a narrow alley, only to have the boy turn and pull a knife, which he luckily managed to wrestle away without injury.

Mr. Kleinschmidt is not the only authority figure to feel the wrath of the Zaatari generation. Young gangs swing into action whenever the smugglers need a distraction, pelting Jordanian police positions with stones. On one occasion, they went so far as to overrun police headquarters during a shift change, making off with whatever they could.

Zaatari is the first camp, Mr. Kleinschmidt says, where he has found the behaviour of the children to be the biggest worry. "Anyone who walks near kids thinks, 'When are the stones coming?' I've never seen that anywhere," he says. "I'm afraid of the kids here."

For sale: anything from fine pastry to underage prostitutes

At the heart of Zaatari is a potholed dirt road dubbed the "Champs-Élysées." It's hard to imagine anything further from the glitter of Paris but the street is nonetheless a testament to the resilience and enterprise of the stranded Syrians.

Tiny hardware stores and shawarma restaurants sit beside juice stands and barber shops, each stall made with sheets of corrugated tin. It's said you can buy anything, from wedding gowns and baklava pastries as good as those in Damascus, to child labourers and underage prostitutes.

Not far from the camp's main gate, Mahmoud Hoshan has a mobile phone shop. He sells few of the old Nokias hanging on the wall, but is an expert at fixing screens and keypads destroyed by Zaatari's epic dust storms.

Mr. Hoshan sends his daughter to classes, but keeps sons Basel, 15, and Raed, 8, with him at the shop. It's more important, he explains, that they learn the family business than go to a school he believes is full of violence, and where students accustomed to learning about their homeland, and French as a second language, are struggling with a Jordanian curriculum and English.

Basel and Raed are among untold thousands of working children in Zaatari. The highway that leads to Mafraq, a city just to the west, is lined with kids – some just four or five years old – selling donated food and other goods to passing drivers for badly needed cash. Within the camp, children push wheelbarrows through the alleys for about 35 cents a load, or work as runners for the mighty smugglers.

Most of the labour isn't strenuous, but many of the children are now starting their third straight year outside the classroom. They may never go back. Whenever this war ends, a country that has long prided itself on having a well-educated population will face a generation with almost no schooling at all.

One other reason Mr. Hoshan refuses to enroll his boys is sheer optimism – he believes everyone will be going back to Syria as soon as the U.S. bombs the Assad regime and turns the tide. U.S. President Barack Obama's vow to punish the regime raised expectations that the ordeal is about to end. The nuances of his talk of a "limited strike" and the politics that saw him postpone his plans this week in favour of a Russian-led diplomatic effort are lost on most.

"Everybody is waiting for the strike. They don't want to be disappointed. People are selling their things, getting ready to go back," Mr. Hoshan says.

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."

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'

At just after noon on a Friday, the imam steps outside his tent and sings, "God is great!" at the top of his lungs to start the traditional Muslim call to prayer.

Men and boys quickly fill the makeshift mosque. Today's guest preacher is Jad al-Karim, a fiery 38-year-old Jordanian known as Sheikh Jad. He says he has come to convince the refugees – who grew up in an officially secular state – their plight is a test from God. Then he shouts: "God help the mujahedeen (holy warriors) fighting in Syria! God help remove Bashar!"

Many in Zaatari are torn over whether to return to Syria, where the battle to overthrow Mr. Assad, once led by predominantly secular defectors from his own army, has taken on an increasingly sectarian nature.

Sunni Muslim extremists (such as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front) now make up a large part of the rebel movement. They see the fight against Mr. Assad – a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and backed by Shia allies from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia – as a holy war, or jihad.

Every week, about 100 people leave the safety of Jordan and return to the maelstrom across the border. Some are looking for missing family members. Others go back to fight.

Mohammed al-Baradani is the Free Syrian Army's liaison in northern Jordan. Better known as Abu Kheir, he operates from a cigarette shop in Ramtha, a city just south of the border.

Jordanian security helps him deliver fighters safely back to Syria, and allows the wounded to receive medical treatment. But Abu Kheir says the FSA (still formally secular, although YouTube videos suggest its fighters are as capable of cruelty as the Assad regime or extremists) is not allowed to train new recruits or conduct operations from Jordan. Officially, at least, the Hashemite Kingdom is sitting this fight out.

He denies there is enlistment of refugees, but a recent UN report says that, not only is the practice increasing, many of the recruits are under-age. Videos shot in Syria show preteens learning to fire assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

FSA flags fly over much of Zaatari, and Abu Kheir, who at 52 has had one of his three sons killed and another injured, admits many new fighters come from the camp – as volunteers. "They want to go back."

A boy who lost his father dreams of revenge

Mahmoud was 12 when his father, standing right beside him, was shot by Syrian troops in Deraa last fall, and was with him when he died in hospital.

By his own admission, the boy was "aggressive" when he arrived in Zaatari days later to live in a caravan with his mother, suffering from gum cancer, and seven siblings. Feeling pressure to be the man of the house, he found a job on Champs-Élysées, paid 75 cents a day to ask families if they'd sell their rations to a black marketeer.

One day he wandered into a safe area run by IMC. Quickly identified as an "urgent" case, he received one-on-one counselling he says has helped him control his anger.

Mahmoud has quit hustling, but at 13 still harbours a deep sense of injury – and injustice.

"You can't feel it because you're just here to visit …," he tells me. "We're so bored. It's like a prison. Just for a change, I want to go outside for one hour, for one minute."

But the Jordanian police allow no one to leave without a permit. And so Mahmoud, who doesn't go to school (they're too violent, he says), sits and stews, watching the bad news from Syria on television. Despite the counselling, rage clearly boils just below the surface.

"I think we will not get freedom, Bashar will win," he says when asked how he thinks the war is going. "My dream is we will win. But my second dream is … when I turn 16 or 18, I will go to Syria and join the jihad."

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