As population in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan soars, focus is on needs of children

Children play in a UNICEF playground in Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan. To protect children, restore a regular routine and address the emotional wounds of conflict, UNICEF provides safe 'Child Friendly Spaces' in the camp where children can play, socialize and otherwise begin to live like children again. UNICEF Image © UNICEF JORDAN/2012/Sharpe

AMMAN, Jordan, 11 September 2012 – Maradi pushes her 2 1/2-year-old son Safwan on a swing while holding her 4-month-old daughter Sofian. Safwan’s twin brother Omran is back in their tent with Maradi’s husband. Report by Melanie Sharpe

In a playground full of noisy children, Safwan swings back and forth in silence, squinting against the dust blowing in his face and the scorching afternoon sun.

It’s the family’s fifteenth day at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

Refugee population soaring

“For six months, the bombing would begin after sunset. Every night, the children would wake up screaming and crying from bombs,” recalls Maradi.

The family finally fled the Syrian Arab Republic when six people from their village were shot. They left during the night on a bus and travelled on foot through a valley before entering Jordan, where they were transferred to the camp.

Za’atari is 15 km south of the Syrian border. The camp opened in late July to shelter the massive influx of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their country. A month later, more than 28,000 people are housed at the camp. Half are children aged 18 and under.

When Za’atari first opened, 300–500 people arrived daily. Recently, the number has soared to up to 2,000–3,000 new arrivals each day.

Sun, sandstorms and memories excruciating

UNICEF Child Friendly Space in the Za’atari refugee camp
Safwan, 2, sits in a swing at a UNICEF Child Friendly Space in the Za’atari refugee camp. Safwan and his family fled the Syrian Arab Republic after fighting intensified in Dara’a. UNICEF Image © UNICEF JORDAN/2012/Sharpe

Za’atari is on barren desert land. Temperatures soar above 40o (C). There are constant sandstorms. Everyone and everything in Za’atari is covered in a thick layer of dust.

It is not only the living conditions that are incredibly difficult, but also the emotional distress of long months of deadly conflict. Children have been affected profoundly.

“The majority of Syrian refugee children have witnessed extreme levels of violence and brutality,” says UNICEF Jordan Representative Dominique Hyde.

Signs that the children’s experiences have caused them to suffer can be seen throughout the camp. Children replicate killing scenes while playing. Others screech, cover their faces and frantically seek shelter when planes fly overhead.

Support targeting children

UNICEF is working to protect children, restore a regular routine and address the emotional wounds of conflict:

The Child Friendly Spaces also offer support for others sheltering in the camp. There are parenting classes, community group meetings and health information sessions.

Syrian children stand outside a UNICEF Child Friendly Space tent at Za’atari
Syrian children stand outside a UNICEF Child Friendly Space tent at Za’atari refugee camp. As the number of new arrivals to the camp soars, UNICEF is appealing for urgent support to increase the number of such spaces for children and families. UNICEF Image © UNICEF JORDAN/2012/Sharpe

Plans laid for uncertain future

UNICEF is recruiting volunteers in Za’atari to work on community child protection committees. The committees refer vulnerable children to UNICEF and its partners, who, in turn, link them to education, health and other urgently needed services.

With more families arriving every day, UNICEF is planning to quadruple the number of safe places to keep up with the growing needs.

“We could be facing a dramatic increase in the number of children in Za’atari over the next two months, if trends continue,” says Ms. Hyde. “We are working urgently to increase the number of Child Friendly Spaces so more children and families can receive support.”

Back at the playground, Maradi says all of her family’s basic needs are being met in the camp, but worries about the well-being of her young twins. “They knew something was wrong and that’s why we left Syria,” she says. “But we are slowly getting used to life here. At least there are no more bombs.”

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