By Melanie Sharpe
UNICEF and partners are working to identify and protect Syrian children who have taken the perilous journey to Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan – alone.
ZA’ATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan, 20 September 2013 – At a protection centre for Syrian children who arrive at Za’atari refugee camp by themselves, 12-year-old Ahmad* smiles, rubs his swollen eyes.
He says his eyes have bothered him since he was younger, from work he did, before.
“But they have given me medicine here,” he says. “They will get better.”
A couple of weeks ago, Ahmad walked, alone, around the camp. Home to more than 120,000 people, Za’atari is the second largest refugee camp in the world.
Ahmad asked person after person how he could attend a youth-friendly space, safe places UNICEF operates in the camp in which adolescents can learn, play and receive psychosocial support.
Eventually, he found his way to one of these spaces. Social workers brought him to the UNICEF specialized protection centre for unaccompanied and separated children managed by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Thanks to the generosity of donors like the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), UNICEF and IRC have identified and supported more than 1,000 unaccompanied and separated children in Jordan since Za’atari opened in July 2012. The majority of these children have been in the camp.
Originally from Dara’a, Syrian Arab Republic, Ahmad left school after finishing kindergarten to work with his father.
“I came here because, when I was at home, the house would shake four or five times a day because of the bombs,” he says.
Ahmad explains that his parents brought him to Irbid, a town in northern Jordan, to stay with his grandmother. His parents then returned to the Syrian Arab Republic. “My father and mother are the most important thing to me,” he says.
Ahmad doesn’t say why he left his grandmother, but he somehow traveled 70 km by bus from Irbid to Za’atari camp by himself.
His two favourite things are swimming and playing football, says the boy.
For now Ahmad is in the constant care of social workers. He attends youth-friendly spaces and is enrolled to go back to school this month.
“I would die to go back to school. I want a good future. I want to be a teacher or a doctor or an engineer,” he says.
Hassan and Bilal, reunited
Hassan has been in Za’atari camp for less than 24 hours. The slender 16-year-old arrived alone.
Originally from Homs, Hassan left school during Grade 8 and moved to Lebanon, where he worked at a restaurant to support himself and send money back to his family.
Life changed when the fighting began.
“They started bombing my town, so my family left Syria and went to Jordan,” he says. “After they left, we lost contact. I was so worried I was sick. All I wanted was to come and join them here.”
Hassan travelled to the Jordanian border alone. It took him three days.
Before leaving, Hassan told his 21-year-old brother Bilal he was on his way.
“The people from IRC called me last night and told me my brother was here,” says Bilal. “The last time I saw him was three months ago. I am so happy he is here. I will take very good care of him now.”
Hassan will stay in the UNICEF/IRC protection centre for the next 24 hours until social workers finalize the family reunification process – to ensure Hassan is safe in his brother’s care.
Protection, around the clock
There are a variety of reasons children are fleeing the Syrian Arab Republic on their own.
Some fear conscription into armed groups or being arrested for having family members fighting. Some children want to get away from the constant violence and have been forcibly separated from family – or their relatives have died.
“We have identified children as young as 9 years old arriving by themselves,” says UNICEF Jordan Representative Dominique Hyde. “They have all seen horrible atrocities and faced immense danger fleeing the conflict without family. These children are incredibly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.”
UNICEF and IRC provide specialized support 24 hours per day to identify and care for these children.
A rigorous process verifies family links before children are reunited with relatives. In cases in which family members cannot be traced, children will be placed with foster families within Za’atari who have been identified, screened, trained and approved. Social workers follow up on these children on a daily basis.
As the refugee crisis continues across the region, more and more children like Ahmad and Hassan will somehow make the dangerous journey – alone.
UNICEF and partners are ensuring that these most vulnerable children are protected, that the dangerous journey ends in safety.
*Names of the children have been changed.