“The UN hates refugee camps.”
These were strange words coming from the manager of Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, which is run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
I was in Jordan representing World Vision, and I had the opportunity to meet and speak to Syrian refugees, Jordanian locals, NGOs and UNHCR staff. Learning from so many different peoples’ perspectives really helped me to appreciate the complexity and scale of the refugee crisis.
One of the most incredible experiences was meeting the Za’atari camp manager. He changed my perspective on how we can help assist this number of people who have been displaced by the crisis in Syria.
My first question was: what’s so wrong with refugee camps? Aren’t they the best way to handle the situation? It turns out – no. However they are the only way available to handle the situation right now.
Youth Ambassadors exchange stories with a family in the Za’atari camp (image by Jo Currie Photography)
Refugee camps are what the camp manager described as a ‘synthetic reality’.
They are meant to mimic an environment of normality, but in fact are not a part of any normal society. The camps share very little with the lives the refugees have had to leave behind.
This is why the UNCHR uses camps as a last resort. It prefers to try and integrate the refugees into normal society. Around 80 per cent of the refugees living in Jordan are in fact living in cities and towns. But they have no way to make money, and life is often a precarious existence. So for over 100,000 refugees in Jordan living in a refugee camp is their only way to survive.
This is 100,000 people with no real home, community, or sense of stability. With no idea, and almost no control over, when or where they can settle into a new community, whether they can go back to their homes, or even if their homes still exist.
This is when I learned about how important education is in responding to this crisis.
Sounds pretty obvious right? Well in this case, you might not realise just how true that statement is.
The Syrian war has left an entire generation displaced. There is an entire generation of Syrian children who have viewed the worst of warfare, and whose childhood memories will be those of a refugee camp. Syrian children are being born in refugee camps where their culture and traditions struggle to survive. These Syrian kids right now are the ones who will go back to Syria once the war is over and rebuild their country.
We all know the devastating impact a lack of education can have on an individual‘s life. Just imagine what that impact could entail for an entire generation.
These kids know that. A 16-year-old boy we met named Hussam had taught himself English in the Azraq refugee camp in the matter of three months. He knew the importance of education, and was doing everything he could with the little resources he had to increase his opportunity of going to university. He wants to become an engineer because he knew there would be demand for engineers once the conflict was over.
For me this clearly showed our number one focus should be getting these children in school. They are motivated and determined, they want to go to school, but many are being denied the opportunity. It is up to us to ensure that they get the opportunity, just as we did.
And that is because New Zealanders can help. While it is true that we have very little control over how the Syrian conflict will play out, what we can do is help prevent some of the long term consequence of the Syrian conflict
If a child doesn’t get into school this means there is an increased risk of child marriage, and child labour. This can lead to poverty which then can lead to a number of associated issues ranging from malnutrition to exploitation.
Kiwis have the power to stop these issues at the root cause.
Kiwis have the power to stop these issues at the root cause and prevent the compounding of problems that will undoubtedly occur if these young Syrians are not looked after.
I was proud to be a part of 100,000 young New Zealanders who took part in the 40 Hour Famine to raise money for Syrian refugee children living in Jordan. We have identified the importance of education in displaced communities, and the funds this year will be going towards helping fund ‘child friendly spaces’; a collection of places, resources and tools that will help with help continue the education, and recovery of children.
This crisis has already had profoundly devastating impacts on people‘s life. We do however, have the power to help look after the future of these individuals, so that their unfair and unjust circumstances do not dictate the quality of their lives in the future.
It’s like the camp manager said- ‘refugee’ is not a class of people, it is a period of a person’s life. They will move forward, and we can help ensure that they have opportunities and pathways for them in the future, just as we do.
Nandini Dubey travelled to Jordan as a 2016 World Vision Youth Ambassador. Alongside her studies in a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery at the University of Auckland, she encourages Kiwi youth to participate in the 40 Hour Famine through school talks and media appearances.