SEATTLE, Washington — In 2013, Zozanna Mela Ali and her parents escaped Syria and fled to Kurdistan, Iraq after the militant group Jabhat Al-Nusra surrounded her hometown for 21 days, preventing all access to hospitals, food and water. Zozanna’s story, unfortunately, hits very close to home for many Syrians. Since the Syrian civil war officially began in 2011, more than 6.6 million Syrian refugees have fled Syria while “another 6.7 million people remain internally displaced.” Now entering its 10th year, the Syrian refugee crisis is the largest displacement crisis of our time and has been felt throughout the Middle East. Almost six million refugees are scattered throughout Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other neighboring countries.
A majority of Syrian refugees who fled to nearby countries “live in rural and urban settings” rather than refugee camps. This, however, does not equate to stable or successful living conditions. Of all these refugees, more than 70% continue to live in poverty. The Borgen Project spoke to Syrian refugees Zozanna, Farah, Asra and Hamid who all live outside of refugee camps in Iraq, the Netherlands, Jordan and Sweden. They shared the needs they believe are necessary among refugees today.
Access to Education
Zozanna Mela Ali is a Syrian woman who sought refuge in Iraq to escape the raging conflict. She fears that without prioritizing education, there “will be a lost generation.” She says, “these children need an education. This will be a building block of a new Syria one day – I hope.” Zozanna’s fears are not irrational. Currently, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon host approximately “1.5 million school-aged refugee children“. However, at least 750,000 of these children and adolescents are not in school.
Before the crisis began in March 2011, Syria had a positive record in education. The “basic education enrollment rate was close to 93%.” However, years of raging conflict have reversed more than a decade of progress in children’s education in Syria. The primary school enrollment rate dropped close to 68% in 2013. The primary reason children drop out of school is because of work. When a majority of Syrians live in poverty, sending their kids to work is the only way to cope. Child marriages are another reason. In Lebanon alone, about 41% of Syrian women refugees were married before the age of 18.
The countries hosting these refugees have tried to accommodate their educational systems for the influx of Syrian refugees. The Government of Jordan has waived tuition fees for all Syrian refugee students in public schools. However, affordable transportation and child labor are continuous obstacles for children hoping to remain in school.
Asra escaped to Jordan with his two children and wife because he felt his family’s life “would be destroyed if [they]stayed.” While he does believe Jordan has been very generous with the given aid, COVID-19 has created more obstacles than he was prepared for. Asra and his family are part of the 9.3 million Syrians suffering from food insecurity. Relief International conducted a survey to assess the impact of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees in Turkey. It found that 59% of the refugees who participated in Relief International reported losing access to food since the outbreak.
Since escaping from Syria, Zozanna Mela Ali dedicated her life to working in refugee camps and assisting other Syrians who have similarly fled the conflict. She explains that many refugees, “before the war, were leading lives similar to how we do in the west”; however, they had to leave most of their possessions behind. They arrive at the camps with only what they could carry. She highlights that Syrian refugees are now living in conditions they were previously unfamiliar with.
The annual Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees reports that nearly 60% of families are currently “living in extreme poverty”, “less than $2.87 per person per day.” Nearly nine out of every 10 refugees claim to be in debt as many borrow money to cover expenses such as healthcare, food and rent. A UNHCR study found that nearly half of the 150,000 Jordanian Syrian Refugees households visited had no heating and unreliable electricity, and 20% of households did not have a functioning toilet. The refugee camps have little proper shelter to defend against harsh weather. Further, COVID-19 has exacerbated the living conditions within the camps, as social distancing, masks and isolation are nearly impossible within the confines.
Mental Health Care
According to a study from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), most of the children refugees have experienced high levels of trauma. For example, almost 80% have had a death in the family; 60% have observed physical assaults and 30% have experienced physical assaults themselves. Of all the children in this study, approximately half of them displayed signs of PTSD, and 44% had depression symptoms. Refugees also face post-migration challenges, including discrimination and cultural integration issues.
Although she lives in the Netherlands, Farah has many friends who escaped to Lebanon and have expressed to her their dissatisfaction. In her own words, Farah says that her Syrian friends “have been humiliated in Lebanon.” In fact, “if they had the chance to go back to Syria, they would leave.” According to Human Rights Watch, “21 municipalities in Lebanon have introduced discriminatory restrictions” solely on Syrian refugees. Hamid also shares his obstacle with integrating into European culture: “European culture is very different from Syrian culture and it created inside me an identity crisis.”
International Medical Corps
For five years, Zozanna has worked with the International Medical Corps as a Program Officer for both mental health and gender-based violence in two refugee camps. IMC has been able to build trust among the communities and enable refugees to go out and seek psychologists and psychiatrists for mental health. IMC was able to reach more than 400 refugees with mental health services. Zozanna believes that what makes IMC so unique is that “a lot of [their]staff are themselves displaced. Considering what the staff has been through themselves, and how hard they work, to have such a strong sense of the humanitarian mission, seems like a daily victory.”
The Karam Foundation works to educate young Syrians who are fleeing from conflict zones and are in a state of crisis. It creates “Karam Houses”, which serve as education centers. The foundation has so far started two centers in Istanbul and Reyhanli. Its goal is to help 10,000 Syrian refugees by 2028.
While the Syrian refugee crisis may seem like it is too big to conquer, there are many organizations that continue to provide a variety of services that meet the basic and lifesaving needs of refugees. Zozanna herself is hopeful of the future: “nothing would make me happier than to return to Syria and help rebuild my country.”
– Maiya Falach