This week marks the fifth anniversary of the establishment of Jordan’s Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees situated in the north of the country. It is estimated that around 80,000 refugees currently inhabit Za’atari, making it the largest Syrian camp in the world. The first dwellings were built in just nine days in July 2012 and by the following April, UNHCR estimated that more than 200,000 people were living there.
While the inhabitants of Za’atari have decreased since then and the camp’s infrastructure has widely improved, it continues to be a symbol of the wider Syrian refugee crisis. Rania Malki, CEO of Save the Children Jordan, said:
Za’atari represents much more than the war. It represents the start of the Syrian refugee crisis in the Middle East, for which Jordan has borne the brunt of the burden.
Since the start of the war, up to 1.3 million Syrians are believed to have crossed the border into Jordan. For tens of thousands of children, the move marked more than just the loss of their homeland but, in many cases, the loss of education. The strain on the Jordanian schooling system remains palpable, Malki says: “The impact on the availability of quality education has been felt by Syrian and Jordanian families alike.” According to UNICEF almost half of all registered school-aged Syrian children in Jordan were not in formal education as of December 2016.
Last year, the Jordanian government vowed to turn the situation around. At an international donor conference in London, it pledged to get all out-of-school children into classrooms by September 2017 and created 75,000 places – an additional 50,000 in public schools, plus 25,000 in non-formal education to bridge learning gaps. Previous restrictions preventing children that had missed more than three years of school from returning were removed. Furthermore Syrian families were given the right to work in limited industries, in an attempt to ease families’ reliance on child labour.
In the school year 2016/17 an additional 24,542 Syrian children were enrolled in formal education, less than half of the 50,000 newly allocated public school places. Across Za’atari there are now 14 schools which offer morning or afternoon shifts but, according to Save the Children’s latest report, teenagers’ education is hit hardest. They are often pressured to relieve financial family burdens, According to a 2013 report by UN Women, almost 50 per cent of Syrian households across Jordan rely in some way on income generated by a child.
Ali* is aged 14, lives in Za’atari with his mother and works in the fields. He says:
I have to work. I’m the only one…If there was somebody else, I would have stayed at school.
“When I go to school, I don’t understand a thing. If I ask my friend to help me the teacher would hit us. That’s why I have decided to stop going to school. The kids that are able to understand school, they should stay at school. Those who don’t understand they have no future.”
Child labour and marriage remain two main threats to children’s education in the camp. In some cases girls are married early to ease the financial pressures on families, or parents just don’t want them to go to school because they face harassment on their way to and from the education centre.
Sarah*,15, wants to be a sports teacher when she grows up but fleeing Syria meant that she was unable to enrol last year. She says:
Girls get harassed on their way to school and tell their parents who then stop them from going to school. There are so many of these cases in the camps.
Many children are in the same situation as Sarah, unable to catch up following years out of school they often become demoralised by teachers ill-trained to cope with mixed abilities. Consistently the teenagers interviewed by Save the Children talk of corporal punishment and impatient teachers who do not allow them ask questions. Furthermore, the shift system in Za’atari means that whole days of schooling are crammed into three hours.
The five year anniversary is really a reminder of how Za’atari has developed and an opportunity to take interest in where it is going. Malki says: “The international community must keep its promise to support countries like Jordan, so that children can not only stay in school, but also have a real chance to learn whilst they are there.”
Ultimately it’s not just about keeping children in school but educating the next generation of Syrians who may have a chance to rebuild the country once the war is over.
* Names have been changed to protect the children
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.