Ohood was sitting at her school desk when bullets started flying, inches above her head. Hassan saw severed heads and limbs lying in pools of sticky blood following the shelling of a funeral. Mohammed’s skin and hair caught fire when a nearby car exploded. Kareem’s next-door neighbor was killed by a shell as she nursed her baby. Moussa was kept in a prison cell alongside decomposing bodies. Eleven-year-old Mohamed writes poems about death and freedom.
In the bleak, windswept landscape of the rapidly swelling Za’atari camp and the overcrowded towns and villages of northern Jordan, child refugees from Syria are struggling to cope with the weight of their experiences during 18 months of bloodshed.
Some are haunted by the deaths of relatives, friends and neighbors. Some hear the sound of shelling and shooting constantly replaying in their heads. Many have seen their homes and communities turned to rubble. A few have been abused or tortured in detention. Some exhibit the physical scars of conflict. Almost all bear the psychological scars.
Children have flooded across the border from Syria in recent weeks, most in family groups, but an increasing number making the difficult and dangerous journey without a parent or close relative. At Za’atari, where dust-caked tents stretch in long rows across a vast desert plain, children are up to two-thirds of the current population of 31,000 refugees.
“They are paying the highest price. We have seen a lot of psycho-social distress, behavioral problems,” said Nadine Haddad of Save the Children, which is launching a campaign today to draw attention to the plight of children caught up in the conflict. Adolescent boys tend towards aggression and even vandalism; younger children suffer nightmares and bed-wetting.
According to Michele Servadei of UNICEF, the number of unaccompanied children arriving at Za’atari has increased to more than 20 a week. Some are completely alone; some have been sent by their parents to travel with neighbors or extended family members.
“Most are boys between 14 and 18, but we are also now getting some girls — a symptom that things are getting worse, more families are being disrupted,” he said.
The UN says a total of more than 280,000 Syrian citizen have registered as refugees or are awaiting registration after fleeing to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. However, there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands more outside the camps and formal process of registration. Aid agencies, host countries and small communities are struggling to cope with the influx.
Ohood, a 14-year-old from east Daraa, made the journey to Jordan a month ago with her parents and seven of her siblings. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) escorted the group to a point close to the Syrian border.
“We had to walk in the dark for three hours, very slowly and quietly,” she said. “It was hard for the little children.”
They arrived in Jordan at 2am.
Her family left after repeated shelling of their neighborhood.
“One day we were at school, about 50 children in an Arabic lesson, sitting at our desks. There were clashes with the FSA, and they got mad and started shooting,” she said.
Asked who “they” were, she answered: “[Syrian President] Bashar’s [al-Assad] security.”
“It was very frightening. All the children started running away, trying to escape. The shooting lasted about an hour,” she added.