Syrian refugee children denied access to Universal Human Rights

Naseem, his wife, Maha, and their seven children live in a small, dimly-lit apartment in Jerash in the north of Jordan. It’s November and already the chill of the impending winter has made its way into their apartment.

The family, from Daraa in Syria, escaped to Jordan in May 2013, at first settling in Za’atari Refugee Camp. Maha, 41, described her children’s fear during the conflict: “They used to hide under my dress whenever there were shootings and bombings.” Naseem, 44, sustained a gunshot wound to the leg, “I had to crawl on my back to move. It was so hard that I asked my wife to take the children and leave without me,” he recalls. To date, Naseem can hardly move. 

Winter is a challenge for Syrian refugees living in basic accommodations. “In winter, it gets really cold in Jerash. We were living in another small house up the hill, but we had to move to our current house because I have painful surges in my leg when it is cold and it is extremely painful,” explains Naseem.

Besides the approaching winter, there are other challenges for Naseem and Maha’s children. Their youngest child, Amir, 5, seems distant and detached as he talks of regular beatings by his neighbour’s son. 

Amir’s brothers, Yaman, 10, and Mohammed, 8, face different challenges. They have responsibilities that go far beyond their ages. Because of their father’s injury, they are the breadwinners for the family. Mohammed sells gum on the streets, earning 2 to 3 Jordanian Dinar (JODs), about $3 USD, per day. Yaman works 12 hours a day in a coffee shop earning another 3 JODs, about $4 USD, per day. “I know how to make Turkish coffee and tea,” says Yaman. “I don't have a single day off to rest and I cannot see my friends,” he added, expressing his frustration and concern for the future. “I want to become a police officer when I grow up to help people gain their rights, but I do not [know how to] read or write like everyone else,” he says.

“In Syria, the main threats to children’s physical safety are violence, kidnapping and torture,” explains Sahar Yassin, World Vision Jordan’s Advocacy Advisor. “In Jordan, the crisis, now in its fifth year, has heightened different protection concerns for Syrian children. The combined effects of displacement and economic destitution have put Syrian refugee children at higher risk of violence and exploitation, including child labour, gender-based violence and early marriage,” she adds.

“Approximately half of all Syrian refugee children are the joint or sole breadwinners for their families in Jordan. These children often do work that jeopardises their physical, mental and moral well-being, preventing them from acquiring the education they need and infringing on their basic human rights," adds Sahar. "Nearly 100,000 Syrian refugee children are missing out on a formal education, leaving them with sub-standard education or no education at all, posing a risk to an entire generation,” says Yassin. “The international community must remember that these children are the future of Syria and commit to more robust actions to protect the future of thousands of Syrian refugee children.”

Ismail, 7, and his sister Samah, 12, are the only children in the family continuing their education. Ismail is excited when he talks about school and the numbers he has learned. Even though he is not a registered student due to a lack of spaces, the teacher allows Ismail to sit in the back of the classroom to listen and learn how to read and write. Although he doesn’t have friends at the school and he is not a registered student, Ismail enjoys attending classes, reading the Quran and learning about new things.

His sister, Samah, who keeps a smile on her face, is the only child to formally and officially attend school. At her age, Samah should be in the seventh grade, but her education was interrupted for three years and so she’s still in fifth grade. Her favourite subjects are Arabic and English.

Samah attends World Vision Jordan’s remedial education classes, which are part of the No Lost Generation (NLG) project, funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. The project provides remedial classes to children and child-to-child activities.  

Naseem wishes all of his children could receive an education but understands the strain the conflict in Syria has put on neighbouring countries, including Jordan. He is grateful for their generosity and that they have opened their schools to Syrian children, even if his children are not able to benefit from this opportunity as the nearest school is very far from where they are living.

The family’s only source of income, in addition to what the boys are able to earn, are the World Food Programme (WFP) vouchers “for extremely vulnerable families”. The vouchers provide 15 JODs (around $21 USD) per person, per month, just over half of what they used to provide (24 JOD or $34 USD per person, per month). Although the family is surviving, their nutritional needs are not being met. “We are only eating two meals per day,” says Naseem.

As winter approaches, Naseem and Maha are concerned. Their children do not have winter clothes, nor does the family have warm blankets or a heater. “If we are warm, we will not have to eat to keep our bodies warm,” said Naseem. 

Maha is simply hoping their family will survive until they are able to return to Syria.