Imagine you are caught in the desert, trapped on a dusty strip of land between Syria, the violence-wracked country you fled, and Jordan, the place you are hoping will take you in and give you refuge. Food, water and medical care are scarce; bodies and informal gravesites dot the landscape. You and 60,000 others stay there anyway. None of you have anywhere else to turn, and this makeshift border camp holds your fate.
Long, hungry days bleed into months of waiting. When authorities finally clear you to cross the border, you head wearily toward Azraq, a refugee camp in northern Jordan. There you are placed in Village 5, a fenced-in area within the camp, for more security checks. It will be a few more months until you are permitted to join the general population, your new home one of 10,000 small, aluminium caravans tightly filed in a 9-square-mile plot of sand.
Imagine all this time you don’t have any money. You don’t have any belongings. You don’t even know if you’re going to survive.
Now imagine you are only 11 years old.
The price of a childhood in war
Azraq is home to more than 50,000 Syrian refugees, including Hanin and her family.
Hanin, 11, doesn’t know how long she’s lived in Azraq. She, her parents and her three siblings arrived after escaping Homs, Syria, a one-time stronghold of non-government forces that has endured some of the worst of the fighting.
Six years of war has spared no one, least of all Syria’s children. And young refugees like Hanin are suffering the burden of conflict in droves, arriving at their places of refuge maimed or injured, angry or too distressed to speak. Some reach camps or communities having made the terrifying escape on their own; there are hundreds of unaccompanied minors in Azraq alone.
According to UNICEF, 2016 was the worst year so far for Syria’s children: at least 647 were injured and 255 were killed or injured while they were at or near school. At least 851 were recruited for conflict, more than double the number recruited in 2015. Millions more have experienced crippling hunger and disease, witnessed killing, or lost someone they love.
And the profound stress of these experiences can have irreversible consequences on their development and well-being. Already nearly half of Syrian refugee children reportedly show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate 10 times that of children around the world.
“Every day I see young people my age surrender to despair and lose hope,” says Yousef, 15, a Syrian refugee in Zaatari camp.
Stress forces the brain to adapt in order to survive, says Jane MacPhail, Mercy Corps’ youth director. And when your brain goes into survival mode for an extended period of time, other functions suffer.
“In particular, with young people, it leads to behaviours that may very well be dangerous, may very well be life-threatening,” MacPhail says.
Consider Hanin. The prolonged, immense stress she has endured living in and escaping war puts her at risk of depression, agitation, aggression, isolation and apathy. It can affect her memory, her ability to learn and her decision-making.
She may be unable to take productive steps in life, such as getting an education, setting goals or maintaining healthy relationships. She may turn toward negative coping mechanisms like violence or drugs that will take her life on a devastating trajectory. She may never become what she is capable of; she may become lost to the world completely.
Now consider there are more than 8 million Syrian children just like her.
Mercy Corps knows it’s critical to address this issue now, because the risk of not doing so is unacceptable: an entire generation of young Syrian adults unable to build stable lives and make positive contributions to their communities.
Working to prevent a lost generation
Mercy Corps’ youth centers offer activities to help young Syrian refugees heal and stay on track to a bright future.
At Mercy Corps’ youth centre in Azraq, Hanin is able to leave any painful memories behind.
The six centers Mercy Corps operates in Azraq — along with many others in Zaatari camp and throughout the region — are dedicated, intentional places for Hanin and other young refugees. Here, boys and girls participate in activities specifically designed to help them cope with difficult experiences, rebuild confidence and trust in those around them, and develop skills to keep them on the path to a better future.
“We do handicrafts. We play. We feel happy,” Hanin says. Her favourite thing to do: arts and crafts.
“For a young person who has experienced difficult circumstances like war, displacement or isolation, arts and crafts present a medium for them to express themselves non-verbally,” says Matt Streng, Mercy Corps’ director for youth, gender and girls. “Young people have told us they feel better working on a structured task like arts and crafts, because it helps them focus their mind and removes — even if temporarily — some of the stress they’re experiencing.”
At the centers, art sessions allow kids to work through painful experiences. Sports and exercise help them burn energy and learn about teamwork, determination and values. Classes teach them life skills, including communication, goal setting and time management, and hard skills such as English and computers. Community improvement projects, like mural painting, give them a voice.
All with one explicit goal in mind: ensuring we don’t lose an entire generation of Syrian youth to debilitating stress.
Youth learn and play through a variety of activities at Mercy Corps’ youth centers.
And these interventions work.
Streng recalls a young refugee who became friends with two girls from her apartment building while attending an activity at a Mercy Corps youth centre. Now the former strangers refer to each other as “sisters” who often turn to each other for support and advice.
“Our research backs these stories up and shows that young people who participate in activities at youth centers are more likely — compared to peers who do not attend activities — to trust others around them, have strong social networks and be optimistic about their future,” Streng says.
A second chance to dream
Azeh, 12, stands outside Mercy Corps’ youth centre in Zaatari camp. Attending the centre has helped her build confidence and set goals for her future.
Sixty miles from Azraq, Azeh, 12, is in engaged and focused with her favourite instructor, Khawla, at one of Mercy Corps’ youth centers in Zaatari, another dusty, caravan-filled refugee camp in Jordan.
In five years of living as a refugee of war, Azeh, too, has come a long way: The youth centre programme has transformed her from a withdrawn, unsociable girl into an outgoing and assertive one.
Azeh gushes about the mural she and her friends just finished: she loved learning creative thinking and collaboration, she says.
Azeh hopes to become a teacher one day so she can support kids in the way she has been supported.
For Azeh, Hanin and thousands of others, Mercy Corps’ youth centers aren’t just places to stay busy in camps far from home — they’re a chance to recapture the dream of a future.
“We can get [the future we want] by coming to the centre,” Azeh says. “Khawla is helping me. If I say what I’m dreaming of to Khawla, she will help me too.”
“I love it a lot here.”
How you can help
Azeh and her favourite teacher, Khawla, at Mercy Corps' youth centre in Zaatari.
For young Syrian refugees like Azeh, Hanin and Yousef, the programmes we provide can mean the difference between a life of despair and a future of hope. And those programmes rely on the compassion and kindness of people like you.
We’ve worked in the region for 20 years and are committed to helping young Syrians and the countries hosting them for as long as it takes. As the number of those in need keeps increasing, your support will allow us do even more for young refugees. Here’s how you can make a difference for Syrian youth: