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On Running the Zaatari Refugee Camp

The kids of Za’atari. The kids, now 45,000 of them. Kids wherever you look. Kids around you when you walk. Kids when you shop in the souk. Kids hanging on water tankers looking for adventure.

Written by Kilian Kleinschmidt Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Kids with wheelbarrows carrying items to be smuggled. Kids selling phone cards. Kids playing counterstrike in the computer cafes. Kids screaming Allah-u-Akbar and making V signs. Kids running after your car. Kids throwing stones and tent pegs after you. Kids playing in child friendly spaces. Kids learning Tae Kwon Do. Kids playing soccer. Kids making music and painting. Kids dismantling fences when our backs are turned. 12,000 kids going to school. Kids crying when they are vaccinated.

When I close my eyes after a day of work in Za’atari, I see children. Children everywhere. And it’s only the children I remember as I try to sleep.

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The kids bring a good and bad power to Za’atari. A positive and a negative energy. The ying and the yang. Some days I will remember the bad stories they have brought to me, but often there is one child that has made a difference. The one child who offered me friendship, a cup of tea or who held my hand.

But frequently there is a child that comes to me with a gruesome story. I have often said that I do not want to focus on this terrible stories. I cannot. If I focus on individual stories, and there are some truly horrific things these children have experienced, I will not be able to do my job as Camp Manager at Za’atari. If I focus on the individual stories and allow an individual story to affect me, I will become overwhelmed.

But rules are often broken, and this is a rule I have broken many times.

We can see all too clearly the scale of the crisis Syria is currently undergoing through the behavior of its children.  The moral, traditional and societal values of the community is unravelling. It is losing its bearings. And as the community has become dysfunctional – so have the children.

At times it feels as if 45,000 little souls are free floating bubbles in space erring through the 530 hectares of the Za’atari desert. They are searching for that landing spot where they can find peace and a protecting warm hand; looking for the hug many parents have forgotten to give.

Often just one handshake will bring a smile to a lost face, but too often all I see are faces that are hard, strong, angry and full of hate against a life, which has not been good to them. And that is unbelievably sad. We are losing a generation.

We believe that more than 2,000 kids have already reached a stage where they cannot be saved by a friendly smile, a place in school, a football game, or Tae Kwon Do lessons. They have checked out, moved on, and left their childhood far behind.

When faced with their criminal acts, we refer them to the juvenile police unit, when we can catch them that is. But we are avoiding them rather than confronting their problems, because they scare us with their violence. They need specialized help and focus.

The thousands of other children need many many hands to hold if we want to prevent them from reaching the next levels of violence and despair. But we do not have enough of those hands to offer. And this isn’t just about those of us who work at the camp. Only by working with the Syrians themselves can we manage to hold so many hands. Outreach on such a scale cannot be humanitarian but is a challenge the adult refugees have to take on as well. But they themselves are lost, hardened and angry.

Those who dream of a peaceful Syria in the future must invest in building the foundations of a functioning and a fully accountable society by the letting the children be children again. The Future of Syria report launched today by UNHCR highlights that of the 680 shops in Za’atari, most of them employ children. This is unacceptable. Children shouldn’t be working. They must be given time and space to play and learn.

The children I see every day are incredible. They are innovative and they are resourceful, but they are also angry. And most importantly they are missing out on an education which will provide them with the skills so necessary for helping to rebuild the country they have been forced to leave behind. We must do everything we can to ensure as many children as possible are given all the attention and skills they need. Saving lives is not only about food, water and shelter – it’s about dignity.

[Today UNHCR launched a new report The Future of Syria – Refugee Children in Crisis. The findings are presented on a multimedia microsite (<span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>)</span>. After nearly one thousand days of conflict, the report is designed to refocus attention on plight of Syrian refugee children.]

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