Op-Ed: Let’s Not Turn Our Backs on Syria’s Young Refugees

In a refugee camp in Jordan, teenage Syrians still cherish dreams of a bright future. It’s time to help make them a reality.

All photos courtesy of Save the Children.

Francine Uenuma is director of media relations and communications at Save the Children. She has traveled to Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq as part of Save the Children’s response to the Syria crisis.

In many ways, life for young residents of Za’atari Refugee Camp in Mafraq, Jordan, can seem deceptively ordinary: classrooms full of teenage girls gabbing and toting brightly colored phones; a soccer pitch full of boys talking Messi and Barcelona soccer. Fourteen-year-old Waleed*, whose family recently left Syria, will tell you he wants to become a doctor. Majida*, a girl of 15, will tell you she wants to be a journalist; she is already on her way, interviewing shop owners about past and current enterprises on the streets of Za’atari camp (which is now home to a main street full of shops that residents ironically refer to as the “Champs-Élysées”).

But what has happened to Majida and her peers in the last three years is anything but ordinary. Her family fled the conflict in Syria, a crisis that just a few years ago would have been unfathomable to urbane Damascenes, in a country with a high percentage of students enrolled in school, many skilled professionals, mothers and fathers of young children envisioning a future for them in Syria.

The crisis in Syria has been met with a surprising level of public apathy in the United States. It’s easy to view it solely through a geopolitical lens, to oversimplify and compare it to other crises, to throw up our hands and say there’s nothing we can do because the situation is so brutal, the solutions so distant. But not being able to solve everything does not absolve us of doing what we can to help young Syrians like Majida look to the future with hope.

It can be hard for Americans observing the Za’atari refugee camp to relate to the conditions there: families living in tents or caravans. Children pushing wheelbarrows and working to help support families whose livelihoods and homes were torn from them. Women who left husbands behind in Syria, children who witnessed their fathers being beaten, families who traveled throughout the night to escape to safety.

Majida

But while the conditions are different, the dreams and aspirations of the kids there are not. If anything, their ambitions seem sharpened into greater urgency by their experience of terror and displacement. Waleed’s desire to become a doctor stems from a wish to help people heal—a not-uncommon response among Syrian youths who have witnessed so much destruction; Majida’s early journalistic endeavors create a narrative of continuity between past and present in her community.

It’s incumbent upon us to bear in mind the needs of today without forgetting the future for this generation of Syrian children. How? By working with your friends and network to help support Syrian children like Majida and Waleed fulfill their goals. We can support them in continuing the education they began in Syria.

As the Syrian crisis approaches a grim milestone—the third anniversary of the first unrest—it’s clear that it will not reverse itself quickly. On the long road ahead, Syrian youths deserve the opportunity to shape their own futures.

* Names have been changed.

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