Isolation and insecurity have become part of everyday life for many Syrian refugee children. Some prefer to be alone; others are kept at home by their parents, who fear for their safety in unfamiliar surroundings.
Tensions within and between refugee and host communities often intensify these fears. The home environment is not always free of tensions either, given the stressful conditions under which many Syrian refugees live. This can also jeopardize the safety and well-being of children.
The influx of Syrian refugees has had a major impact within Lebanon and Jordan, destabilizing local economies and putting pressure on housing and infrastructure.
A poll conducted in Lebanon in May 2013 with 900 Lebanese adults found that 54 per cent agreed with the statement that “Lebanon should not receive more Syrian refugees.”4 A similar survey conducted in July 2013 with 1,800 Jordanians found that 73 per cent were opposed to receiving more Syrian refugees.5
Father Nour Al-Sahawneh, of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Mafraq, Jordan, said that based on his interactions with the local community, “Jordanians are starting to see this as a crisis for them as well.”
Security issues and community tensions are particularly acute in Tripoli, northern Lebanon. UNHCR’s Senior Field Coordinator, Daniela Raiman, cited several contributing factors, such as existing religious and cultural differences between population groups, the proliferation of weapons and the pressures placed on the host community by a growing number of refugees. She said that conflicts within Lebanese communities are often resolved outside the formal legal system—by individuals themselves and through traditional dispute resolution mechanisms, such as community elders or religious leaders.
Refugees are sometimes caught up in conflicts in volatile areas such as Tripoli, and UNHCR regularly monitors their well-being. When violence flares up, Raiman said, children are often afraid and cannot sleep because they are reminded of their experiences in Syria. Their parents sometimes keep them inside for their safety.
Security concerns also arise within refugee communities. In Jordan’s Za’atari camp, for instance, violence, theft and vandalism occur among Syrian children. One community leader said theft by children had increased in the first half of 2013, sometimes instigated by adults. Some boys in Za’atari allegedly belong to gangs, which instill fear in other refugees living in the camp.
Against this backdrop of fear and insecurity, organized educational and recreational activities can often be the only way for children to socialize. A 23-year-old Syrian volunteer with Questscope’s mentorship programme for adolescents and youth said many children in Za’atari camp “can’t breathe, can’t live” due to claustrophobic living conditions.
The volatile environment in parts of Jordan and Lebanon, particularly border areas, can lead children, especially boys, to consider returning to Syria to join armed groups. Several staff working with refugee children said that they were aware of children returning to Syria for this purpose, as recent reports have noted.6
Concrete information on child recruitment is lacking, but during focus group discussions several boys expressed a desire to return to Syria to fight. One 16-year-old boy in Irbid, Jordan, claimed that he has heard about boys being sent to Za’atari camp, trained to fight and then sent back to Syria. However, he and the other boys who spoke about the issue said that to their knowledge, children under 18 did not fight, but rather worked “distributing information.”
A new initiative in Jordan is under way—the UNICEF-UNHCR Joint Action Plan to Prevent and Respond to Child Recruitment in Jordan. This includes increased monitoring of the returns process and a detailed information campaign for the prevention of recruitment. The importance was underscored by information highlighting violations of children’s rights in Syria, including the use or recruitment of children by armed actors engaged in the conflict.
Despite the strain of such a massive influx, Lebanese and Jordanian communities continue to help when they can—donating food, water, crockery, furniture, gas and even books for children to read.
One mother in Mount Lebanon said that when her nine-year-old got lost in the streets, a stranger helped him find his way home. A Jordanian family in Zarqa gave an oxygen device to the family of a Syrian refugee child who suffered from asthma. In Tripoli, Lebanon, one business man provided shelter to a refugee family in the back of his shop, while another offered jobs to a number of Syrian refugees in his factory and provided them with accommodation.
UNHCR’s Za’atari camp manager, Kilian Kleinschmidt, described the boys in the camp as “premature adult men who have dreams about fighting, especially now with the war so present in their lives.”
Za’atari is one of the most unruly places Kleinschmidt, a veteran aid worker, has ever worked in. He said that many of the violent incidents there involve children. However, he has observed a reduction in the daily number of incidents since the holy month of Ramadan. He attributed this to humanitarians working more closely with the refugee community. He also linked it to ongoing discussions that include the community in the camp’s governance structure and increased involvement by the Syrian traditional leadership system in maintaining order.
“Community is coming back to the camp,” Kleinschmidt said, noting that out-of-school children were integrating into a more familiar social structure. But despite improvements in the overall situation, he warned that children were still engaged in mischief and misbehaviour.
In the words of Abdel-Menhen, a Syrian refugee and outreach volunteer in southern Lebanon, some Syrian children “feel like they are in prison.” Due to safety concerns, their need to do family chores and a lack of knowledge about available activities, many rarely leave the house and do not play with friends as frequently as they did in Syria.
During field research across Jordan and Lebanon, 106 children were asked how often they left home; 29 per cent said once a week or less. Seven children left less than once a month.
Isolation, loneliness and boredom were raised as particular problems among girls. Noor, 13, spent a month in Za’atari camp with her mother and father and four siblings. They did not interact with anyone else outside the family. Her father was concerned for his daughters’ safety to the point where he didn’t allow them to leave the tent. He did not even want people to know that any girls were living there. He set up a bucket inside the tent as a toilet, so they would never have to leave. Noor and her elder sister would amuse themselves by playing with rocks.
Even parents who had not heard of specific security incidents against girls said that they felt wary about letting their daughters leave the house in a strange country. Hiba, a single mother with eight children aged eight months to 14 years, lives in a caravan in King Abdullah Park in Jordan. Although she is not aware of any kind of harassment, she worries about her two daughters’ safety. She does not let them out alone. She explained: "A girl's reputation is like a cup. Once it's broken, there's no putting it back together."
While boys leave the home more freely, they are also sometimes kept at home for their safety. When errands need doing, and it is a choice between sending a girl or a boy, several families said they choose to send their sons.
“I have friends from all over Syria here,” said 15-year-old Samer who now lives in Jordan’s King Abdullah Park after fleeing Syria without his parents. “I have friends from Aleppo and Homs now and they teach me about areas in Syria I’ve never been to.” Despite the hardships, Samer and others have enjoyed some good experiences with new friends from among fellow refugees or local Jordanian and Lebanese children.
Overwhelmingly, however, young refugees endure lives of isolation and have limited opportunities to make friends and interact with refugee and local communities. In urban areas, a child’s social sphere may not extend beyond their immediate building, or even their apartment.
When children living in apartments were asked who they interact with socially, the most common answers given were their siblings, cousins, Syrian neighbours or their classmates.
Humanitarian agencies know that sports and other physical activity can mitigate the memories of war and lay the groundwork for a more normal life amidst the chaos of displacement.
UNICEF and partners support child-friendly and adolescent-friendly spaces in Lebanon and Jordan where children can play and learn safely. In Jordan’s King Abdullah Park, Cyber City and Za’atari camp, UNICEF has established 11 playgrounds and sports courts. UNHCR has built a playground at one registration center in Jordan and War Child Holland, Save the Children and Intersos have centres at UNHCR registration sites in Beirut, Tripoli and Tyre. Some organizations run unique programmes, such as Korea Food for the Hungry International, which offers tae kwon do for children in Za’atari camp.
In southern Lebanon, Terre des Hommes runs a programme where “animators” visit refugee homes for up to two hours, engaging children with activities such as storytelling, puppetry, face-painting and games. An Intersos “Child Smart Bus” in southern Lebanon brings recreational and educational activities to 64 local villages, particularly targeting isolated 6- to 13-year-old girls and boys.
Most Syrian refugee families are living in conditions that are drastically worse from what they used to know in Syria. "Home" today is a tent, caravan, collective shelter or crowded apartment shared with extended family. Some lack electricity. When it is available, they cannot afford to pay the bills to run basic appliances like a fridge.
Many depend on humanitarian assistance to survive. The difficulties they face are compounded by an uncertain future, the unknown fate of missing family and friends, financial concerns and a lost sense of purpose. All this creates a tense and uneasy environment, which can be psychologically damaging for children and can trigger violence in the home.
Although only anecdotal information was collected on domestic violence involving Syrian children, humanitarian workers expressed overall concern about the situation. Opinion varied as to whether the prevalence of domestic violence against children has increased as a result of displacement. Some people interviewed—including a psychiatrist in Lebanon with over ten years of experience in Syria—said it is not uncommon for Syrian mothers and fathers alike to use a degree of physical force when disciplining their children, particularly among families from rural areas. They do not think that this has necessarily increased.
Others disagreed, contending that domestic violence has become more prevalent among Syrians, particularly men, since fleeing their country because of increased levels of stress, anxiety and crowded living conditions. Kazem Saleh Al-Kfery, who manages the Family and Childhood Protection Association in Irbid, Jordan, had the impression that domestic violence among Syrian refugees has increased since their displacement. He attributed this to their changed living conditions, as sometimes 12-15 people live in the same apartment. Al-Kfery said that domestic violence is a particular problem for girls.
An assessment conducted in Za’atari camp found that “domestic violence is the most prevalent type of violence, and it most affects girls aged 12-18,”7 although violence is sometimes also directed against boys.8 However, comprehensive data on the extent of domestic violence against girls and boys in Jordan and Lebanon is lacking—not least because women and children are more likely to report domestic violence to family members, rather than seek support outside the home.9
UNHCR and partners conduct awareness-raising activities to prevent domestic violence, increase awareness of available services and encourage those who have experienced or know about cases to come forward. There are several response mechanisms including individual case management, mediation and follow up with children and their parents, and the development and implementation of safety plans for affected children.
In many cases, UNHCR and partners involve the authorities, following a determination of the best interests of the child and obtaining the consent/assent of the child and/or his or her parents. UNHCR works closely with the Union pour la Protection de l’Enfant au Liban in Lebanon and the Family Protection Department in Jordan, to assist children who are survivors of violence and abuse.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
~ Nelson Mandela ~
It's all of our responsibility to protect the children of Syria, to tell their stories, and raise awareness about their plight, until they can go home. Please consider donating (or supporting), connecting, and sharing.
Thank you for sharing this report.
Your email has been sent successfully!
There was an error processing your email.
Please check the email address and try again.
Alternatively, you may still share this section by
copying and pasting the following url:
Syrian Refugee Children
Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.
Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.