Freezing cold at night. Unbearably hot and dusty during the day. A desert. A tent city. Za’atari refugee camp is home for more than 140,000 Syrian refugees. Three out of four are women and children. Just over a year ago Za’atari was little more than sand, dotted villages and a school.
The Syrian uprising, which began 40 kilometres away in the town of Daraa, rapidly changed this as thousands of refugees began to cross the border to flee the worsening conflict.
In March this year, Act for Peace visited Za’atari camp and witnessed first-hand the astounding magnitude of the Syrian crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates camp numbers to be over 140,000 – close to the population of Cairns in Queensland.
António Guterres is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In September he called for urgent international support to assist the unfolding crisis.
“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history,” Mr Guterres said.
Za’atari’s environment is far from forgiving. Natural threats include a lack of water and extreme weather conditions. The unique mix of cultures create extra challenges as the camp is home to people from all different religions, backgrounds and beliefs.
Executive director, Act for Peace, Alistair Gee said that in every tent and trailer there are stories of personal horror and broken lives.
“For Syrian refugees, dispossession is absolute,” Mr Gee said.
“There is an overwhelming loss of country, of home, of stability and most fleeing refugees have lost a family member, a friend or both.”
Here they met 16-year-old Hana*, one of many Syrian youth with no choice but to live under the harsh, threatening conditions of a refugee camp. Hana lives in Za’atari with the members of her family who escaped Syria after bombs hit their home and members of her family were tortured.
On the surface she seems like a normal teenage girl but, behind her smile, are the scars of the Syrian conflict.
“When our house was bombed we left, but the bombing was still happening…while we were walking on the road another bomb came…the bombing stayed for about two days and we hid in a dark shelter as it was too dangerous to go outside,” Hana said.
Amidst the harsh realities of the conflict Hana embodies the clear and strong desire from Syrian youth for a peaceful and prosperous future. She spoke of her dreams beyond the conflict.
“It is my aspiration to become a doctor,” Hana said.
“Whenever I see a child in pain I always wish to help him. It has been my aspiration since I was young.”
In Za’atari camp, Act for Peace and its partners help Hana and other Syrian youths attend school. Hana spoke of the incredible impact of education to empower a young generation of Syrians.
“We all go to school, even with the difficulties that we suffer here,” Hana said.
“We all have the resolve to study. What makes me stronger to study is so I can return to my country and build it for my future. Knowledge is what makes us better.”
Hana is fortunate to be given an education in Za’atari.
In conflict situations women and children are particularly vulnerable and many are not as lucky as Hana.
Act for Peace’s international programs coordinator Karen Rasmussen is an expert in child protection. She explained that beyond the obvious physical impacts of the Syrian conflict, the situation is taking an insidious toll on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of children and young adolescents.
“Refugee camps can be very dangerous places for children and young adults,” Ms Rasmussen said.
“There are risks of sexual abuse and physical violence but beyond this individuals have often experienced extreme psychological trauma before coming to the camps.”
Children in some refugee camps can be particularly vulnerable to manipulation: being forced, or lured, into joining an armed group or selling or exchanging sex for food.
“Aid agencies have strict codes of conduct for all staff working in refugee camp settings but sadly some children may decide to sell sex on their own, inside or outside the camp, as a way to make money or get food,” Ms Rasmussen said.
Refugee camps are extremely unnatural environments for children and fear, trauma, depression and distress are common. This often exhibits in aggressive behaviour, withdrawing or shyness, anti-social behaviours and mental health issues.
Syrians can see no end to the current conflict. More than six million Syrians have been displaced and thousands are fleeing every day, the majority women and children. So how can governments, churches and individuals make a difference to the Syrian people?
Act for Peace brings together 19 member churches in Australia and unifies Christians to raise vital funds to protect Syrian refugees in the midst of conflict.
Mr Gee believes the combined efforts of churches, including financial support, prayer and peace advocacy can make a substantial and ongoing impact to those in need.
“Churches of all denominations need to come together and give what they can to reach out to the Syrian population,” Mr Gee said.
“Through prayer, financial support and unified action calling for peace-talks, we can make a difference.”
Za’atari refugee camp continues to grow with thousands fleeing to the camp daily. Lives have been devastated by the violence. Boredom, fear, anxiety, depression and sickness continue to spread but among this great human resilience and fortitude have also grown.
“When I learn about the story of a girl like Hana – intelligent, resilient and empowered, I am inspired,” Mr Gee said.
“It makes me realise that amidst the heartbreaking conflict there is hope. We can make a difference to the lives of these people. One person at a time.”
Visit www.actforpeace.org.au/cmsyria to support Syrian families and refugees.
*All names of refugees depicted and quoted have been changed.
Article by Karen McGrath, Media and Communications Coordinator, Act for Peace