ZATAARI REFUGEE CAMP - MAFRAQ, JORDAN – Unlike other children his age who are attending school, Samir spends most of the day waiting in line along with other Syrian children in the Zataari refugee camp waiting to receive fresh water to bring to his family.
The frail-looking 8-year old boy is covered from head-to-toe with dust from the desert. As he maneuvers the heavy bucket, water spills on the ground so that by the time Samir reaches his tent, mud is stuck to his feet. His father taps his shoulders and tells him to go out and play with his peers. Samir's father says officials in the camp have promised to open a school in the near future, but the children have not yet been registered or classified. Additionally, most students arrive at the camp without any papers to prove their level of education, making their evaluation according to the Jordanian syllabus even more difficult.
“We are going to wait for months before our children get into schools,” Samir’s father told The Media Line. “They do not even know how many children we have, what age they are, and how many classes they need.” Another refugee, Abu Nabneel, added that, “We have teachers and other refugees who can help teaching, but they do not want our help.”
The United Nations agency UNICEF has opened a center inside the camp in order to help children cope with their new environment by giving them the chance to sing, dance and play. But the camp is ever-expanding because of the pace at which children arrive every day. A senior official from the Hashemite charity organization, the government-affiliated group that looks after Syrian refugees, said the rapidly-increasing number of refugees makes it more difficult to quickly provide children with schooling, noting that there are more pressing problems that take precedence.
“This camp is growing larger everyday,” the official, speaking with anonymity because he lacked permission to speak with media, told The Media Line. “We do not know anymore how many children there are and this makes it difficult to estimate costs of providing education. We also have problem of weather and how to deal with the difficult living conditions.”
In the nearby town of Um Jemal, public schools are beaming with children running in the school yards and waiting in line to enter their classes. But Samir, like thousands of other Syrian children in the Zataari camp, are not allowed to enter Jordanian public schools. Officials from UNICEF told The Media Line that they are working on a number of ideas to bring education to the Syrian refugees as soon as possible, but they admit to facing a daunting task to accomplish this mission.
The Jordanian government torpedoed one proposal offered by UNICEF as “unrealistic” that would have offered classes taught by teachers provided by a New York-based organization using classrooms in government schools during hours in which the schools are empty. The American organization would have provided not only teachers, but transportation and books as well. Officials from the ministry of education said more students using the schools will create a burden on infrastructure and in any case, they believe refugees should be getting their education “on camp site.”
“We do not have the sufficient resources to place Syrian children in schools for the time being, but we are in talks with UNICEF and other groups to see how to help them,” Ayman Barakat, spokesman for Jordan's ministry of education said.
The UN agency for refugees, UNHCR, has indicated that more than of 25,000 Syrian refugees now reside in the Zataari camp. One-third of them are children.
Meanwhile, not all Syrian refugees face similar difficulty with education. There are thousands of others living outside the camp who have access to public schools. Last year, Jordan allowed refugees registered with UNHCR attend state-run public schools, but the priority is to Jordanian students. The government says there are about 17,000 Syrian students in public schools this year, up from 3,000 last year.
Jordanian Prime Minister Fayyez Tarawneh said last week during a news conference that his country has reached its limits in terms of its ability to accommodate Syrian refugees. He said the desert kingdom is struggling to provide even fresh water, let alone better living conditions, health care and education. “The number of Syrian refugees coming to Jordan has surpassed our expectations and is beyond our capabilities,” said the premier. “We will try to provide decent lives for them and hope to close the camps once the crisis is over,” he said, indicating that the chronic water shortage hitting his country has worsened the situation.
“Syrian refugees need 700,000 liters of fresh water and this needs to be supplied urgently," added Tarawneh. Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of natural resources, including water. Last week, the government appealed for $700 million in urgent assistance to accommodate the continuing flood of refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria. The government says nearly 140,000 Syrians have arrived since the crisis began a year ago, and more continue to come on foot to escape government shelling.
Everyday, nearly 500 refugees cross into Jordan from the Syrian town of Tal Shehab. They are escorted to refugee camp centers under the care of local charity groups and international aid organizations.
For now, Samir awaits the opening of a school, a project that seems to take less priority for aid groups and Jordanian officials, who say they cannot feed refugees, or even provide them with sufficient water. For many refugees, their priorities, too, are more focused on obtaining decent food and accommodations than on their children’s education.
“We don’t want our children to study, we want vegetables and shops to sell us food,” pleaded a woman covering her face. “The food they give us is expired and children have to visit the infirmary regularly.”For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org