Why We Can’t Ignore a Generation of Syrian Youths

Teenagers have been greatly overlooked in the Syrian crisis, yet their generation will face the enormous task of rebuilding the country.
(Photo: Nour Kelze/Reuters)
Mar 14, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Karen Scriven is Mercy Corps’ senior director of youth, gender and girls. She has more than 20 years of experience in program design and management.

This month, Syria enters its sixth year of devastating conflict. At least 250,000 people have been killed and more than 1 million injured. Half of the country’s population—11 million people—is displaced. Equally alarming: More than half of the 4 million people who have fled their homeland are under 18, and one in four of these young people is a teenager.

Teenagers have been greatly overlooked in the Syrian crisis, despite billions of dollars spent on aid. They are spending their formative years in limbo and have missed critical developmental and educational milestones. Yet, their generation will face the enormous task of rebuilding Syria and mending the torn social fabric of the region.

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In the first half of December 2015, Mercy Corps interviewed 15 Syrian youths between the ages of 15 and 19 during trips to Irbid, Jerash, and Azraq camp in Jordan; Sidon, Lebanon; and Gaziantep, Turkey. The findings are outlined in a report released today. In the face of adversity, Syrian teenagers are filled with hope, resilience, and potential. They see that a better, brighter, and more peaceful future is possible, and they want a voice. But they can’t be ignored any longer.

Bassam, a 17-year-old Syrian refugee living in Irbid, Jordan, works 12-hour days in a textile factory to support his family of eight. (Photo: Peter Biro for Mercy Corps)

If given the chance, young Syrians and their peers in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq can become engines of growth and prosperity wherever they reside and a promise of reconciliation and reconstruction when Syria finally has peace. The international community must stand side by side with them and commit to helping do three things:

1. Improve Their Well-Being

Five years of prolonged stress have changed the brain chemistry of Syrian youths. Violence, discrimination, abuse, lack of education, poverty, exploitative labor— they’ve been exposed to all of these shocks, and any one alone could derail them. A 2015 study of the mental health of Syrian refugee children in southeast Turkey found that almost half the young people researchers spoke to had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder—10 times the prevalence among children globally. Forty-four percent suffered from depression linked to their trauma.

We need to focus on helping Syrian adolescents heal from the trauma they’ve experienced. They need to understand their stresses, work through problems in nonviolent ways, set goals, and start to plan for the future. It’s crucial that we work with young people to develop positive coping skills such as teamwork, constructive communication, and goal setting that can reduce destructive behaviors stemming from the shocks of violence, isolation, and displacement. Once they’re able to meet basic needs through positive coping skills, young people can regain the emotional and cognitive ability to learn new information and skills to guide their future decisions. This could be rolled out to benefit every Syrian, alongside vulnerable youths in host communities.

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When her family fled to Lebanon from Syria, 19-year-old Dalia was just a grade away from finishing high school and pursuing her goal of becoming a flight engineer. (Photo: Peter Biro for Mercy Corps)

2. Get Them Back in School

Young Syrians are passionate about education. In 2010, more than 70 percent of Syrian teenagers were enrolled in secondary school. That number has been sliced in half, with a 26 percent secondary school enrollment rate in 2015. In Syria and neighboring countries, hundreds of thousands of Syrian youths have dropped out of school for a variety of reasons, including the pressure to contribute to family income. The reality we must accept is that many won’t be going back. A fresh approach is needed.

This means making bigger investments in informal education that can either put young people back on track to reenter formal education or prepare them for jobs with the relevant skills demanded by the current labor market. We also have to recognize and address the existing barriers to education. A new approach to nonformal education, blending face-to-face instruction with digital education, is necessary. Syrian teachers need to be trained to offer education to young people where they live rather than just in brick-and-mortar schools.

3. Help Secure Fair and Legal Work

In Syria’s neighboring countries, there are countless barriers to safe, fair, and decent work for young Syrian refugees. Intense pressure to support their families often means that they must risk the illegal labor market and take jobs that are exploitative—and that close off any chance they have for resuming their education. We are calling on regional governments to set up “enterprise funds,” which are public-private partnerships that invest in small and medium-size businesses. They’re driven by the demands of the labor market, and they focus on what works, what sells, and what can create jobs. Enterprise funds can work with job-skills training programs to make sure Syrian youths are given not only the skills they need but real opportunities too. Enterprise funds must also be matched with legal reforms so refugees can more easily get work permits and have the ability to launch small business start-ups.

We see Syrian youths as change makers with the passion to dream of a better world and the drive to build it. Given the chance, they can engineer new hospitals, shape new economies, and mentor the youths who come after them. They tell us that they feel a strong sense of desire and responsibility to rebuild their country when peace comes. But we need to listen to their calls for help.