Out of the frying pan, into the classroom
The long road
Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan, Jan 1 2015 – As she poses for a photograph in the late afternoon light, her blue sunglasses tucked back up on her head, 10-year-old Batul looks like any normal schoolgirl in Jordan. A silver bangle dangles from one wrist and she leans somewhat shyly on one foot as her friends tease her about hamming it up for the camera.
One awkward purple flip-flop taps a dusty rhythm on the ground, but this is the dust of Zaatari Refugee camp, and Batul’s life of late has been anything but normal.
“We left Syria about a year and a half ago,” she explains. “We were running from the bombing and we were lucky not to get blown up.”
Batul’s hometown in Dera, southern Syria, had already been under fire for some time. Eventually, the risk of seeing their loved ones get killed became intolerable, and the family decided to join the more than 3 million refugees who have been forced out of Syria by the crisis.
“We left in a car and we travelled by night,” says Batul. “When we arrived in Zaatari, we stayed in a tent, but it wasn’t just for us – it was someone else’s tent and they let us stay.
“Then, in the morning, we were given our own tent, but we weren’t used to this place at all.”
A hard life for children
Now those tents stretch behind her, covering the barren rocky ground for almost as far as the eye can see: rows and rows of them, whole streets and avenues, holding a population of around 80,000 people, which makes the camp, technically, Jordan’s second largest town.
More than 600,000 other refugees are scattered in towns and villages across the country, and life for all of these families is becoming increasingly difficult. As the conflict drags on, savings are running out and underfunded humanitarian programmes to provide food, shelter, warm clothing and other services face a constant struggle to continue.
Many children are being forced into work or marriage. Around 25% are out of school, and for the rest educational quality is by no means guaranteed. The government of Jordan has bent over backwards to open up schools to refugees, and UNICEF and other organizations have paid for double shifts, supplies and teacher training, but the huge influx of children is overwhelming.
All luck is relative
Batul herself is still studying. She’s one of 20,000 children in the camp who attend government-run schools that have been opened with the support of UNICEF. The circumstances are not ideal, but they are far better than the alternative of missing out on education altogether.
As Batul puts it, “Kids should go to school and learn so that when they grow up they know what to do with themselves and with their lives.” And what Batul wants to do with her life is to be a doctor. She says she wants to keep other children safe from disease.
She’s still not used to life in Zaatari, but she’s making the best of it, because she’s an optimist. Even after all that’s happened, she considers herself fortunate compared to other children.
“We were running from the bombing but luckily we didn’t get bombed,” she says. “And then later, along the way, there were loads of snipers, but we were lucky again.”
But she’s not, really, if you think about it. If she were really lucky, she’d be at home and in her own school, and this 10-year-old girl wouldn’t even know what a sniper is.