Crying for Their Country

About 5,000 Syrians a day flee their homeland's bloodshed, a civil war now entering its third year. They escape the conflict only to find themselves living in squalid quarters in neighboring nations, in what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian disaster of our time.

Many of the 1 million refugee children arrive in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and memories of friends and home.

Each has a story.

By Sevil Omer | Photos by Jon Warren

Once, Israa thought her life mattered. On the day of Israa’s final exam, warring factions destroyed her school in Syria, shattering her way of life and goals of earning a high school diploma. “I was in school when the bombs hit,” the 18-year-old says. “The windows were blown out, glass everywhere and some hit my friends in the face and hands. Glass hit my face.” Israa dreamed of becoming a lawyer. She wanted to help women and children, protect them from injustice. "With war, there is no more," she says.

Thousands of Syrian schools have been attacked or destroyed in the country’s civil war. The honor student now spends her time confined to a tiny flat with at least 10 others in the most impoverished street in Zarqa, Jordan, near the Syrian border. She longs for the day when she can return home and run through her cobbled streets to hug her father, her teachers and her friends. “I want to return to Syria, my Syria, a free Syria.”

Mahmoud’s tough life has gotten a lot tougher. The 19-year-old Syrian refugee supports up to 10 members of his family now living in an abandoned building in Irbid, Jordan. He’s out on the dusty streets of the city day and night looking for work so he can eek out enough money to pay for bread for his sibling with special needs, his aunt, cousins, and young nieces and nephews. He earns about $5 to $8 a day — just enough to pay for clean water.

Through conversations, Mahmoud reveals his gentle demeanor. However, there’s a harsher reality behind his brown eyes and ready smile. “There is so much I have seen, so much death and so many dead people on the streets of my home,” Mahmoud says. His father and older brother were tortured and killed in Syria. Mahmoud fled Syria with hundreds of other men to the border of Jordan.

He was reunited with his mother and aunt at Za’atari Refugee Camp. He still speaks of school and how he hopes to return to the classroom so he can study.

Until then, he must be the father figure for his slain brother’s children, Hind, 4, and Mahoud, 3. The children rarely leave their uncle’s side and Mahmoud is torn each time he has to leave. Before he can cope with his ordeal, Mahmoud must now chase a living for his family’s survival.

  • Mahmoud’s brother, Abed, is a child with Down syndrome. He rarely leaves the television screen, a donation made to the family living in a settlement in Irbid, Jordan. His family allows Abed to watch as much as he desires because without it he cries uncontrollably. The 13-year-old child with special needs sits ever so close to the TV to drown out noises and sounds; firecrackers, shouts, or cars backfiring frighten him. “He is very scared,” his mother says. “When he is not watching TV we have to give him medicine to go to sleep. When he is up, he watches the television.”

  • Mohaned, 3, was holding his father’s hand when gunmen walked up to the family in front of their home in Syria and opened fire, instantly killing the man. Mohand, whose name means “praise worthy,” rarely speaks and refuses to leave his aunt’s side.

  • Before they fled Syria, sisters Rarawn, 17, and 12-year-old twins, Dalal and Dana, were honor students aiming to become doctors. They scored high on grades and tests and were set to move onto accelerated courses, preparing them for the medical tract. The girls were unable to complete their last week of school because bombs flattened the building.

    Their mother, Bodoor, says the girls now sit and wait. They break the hours of numbing boredom by speaking of their teachers, their friends at school, and the last day of class.

    “The world can be a difficult place for girls, and education is one of the ways of improving their lives,” Bodoor says. “We stressed school and education in our home. They loved and still love school. With the war, we have very little now but I want my daughters to go to school. Without school, their future is not good.”

  • Nura, 25, and her children live inside a tiny basement in Zarqa, Jordan. “We do not get to leave this place,” Nura says, as her hand sweeps across the room, where 10 people share a space no larger than storage shed. “We're afraid to go out. Neighbors don’t like us. I am afraid for my children. Everyone wants us to be gone. We are among the invisible.”

  • With nowhere to go and nothing to do, Syrian refugee children spend their day on cots inside dilapidated empty room in Jordan. Nura’s three children are thin and lethargic. Their mother tries to play with her children, Adel, 5 (right), Semer, 2 (center), and Islam, 1, but it's not enough. “They end up fighting,” Nura, says. “I want my children to be able to play, go to school, and grow up healthy and strong.”

  • Nura fears her daughter, Islam, is not developing like other children her age. She says Islam and her two sons do not get to eat as much food as she would like because they cannot afford it. The mother often goes hungry to make sure there is enough for her children to eat.

Refugees like Nura who are living in urban neighborhoods in Jordan face rejection and discrimination. They feel trapped and are left to survive on their own in poor neighborhoods, with no sanitation, electricity, or clean water. The sound of Nura’s voice flows melodically like a fresh spring as she speaks of her peaceful existence in Syria before war. Her tone quickens when she recalls the bombs, bullets, and screams of her children during clashes between armed groups less than a year ago.

“We were sitting down for our holiday meal and I heard the noise, one that I have never heard before, a whooshing, a howl, a whistle. Then, everything I ever knew and had — all of it was gone,” she says.

Ahmed and his wife, Amani, have four boys: Mohammed, 13; Yasen, 10; Shiekh, 7; and Ala’a, 4. “We fled because of my boys,” said Ahmed, who is a Syrian refugee living in Irbid, Jordan. “We left our home, my work, and our country because of our sons. We feared for the safety of our sons. There was so much fighting.” War has lasting effects.

The Jordanian government has opened public schools in the country to Syrian refugees, but the demand is great and the schools fill fast. Ahmed’s boys have not been able to attend school for two years and still are unable to enroll. The father fears his children have missed too much time to be able to keep up. The boys pass the time by playing with donated toys, including a plastic toy gun. It is the boys’ favorite plaything. Their favorite game is simulating scenes from battle and when not playing war games, they fight, their mother says.

  • Kidding around in crazy dust. The maze of tents and caravans at Za’atari Refugee Camp cover an enormous expanse of sand and rock in the northern Jordanian desert. Children play with debris often kicked up by dust devils. “We play with what we can, we try to make friends with each other,” says Rama, 11. But her main focus is school. She says she believes there are too many children scrambling up and down the dirty and dusty alleys of the camp. “They should be in school,” Rama says. “I want to ask the parents and their children why they are not in school. School is for their future.”

  • A Syrian family makes its down the dusty street to the entrance of Za’atari Refugee Camp. The camp is the first place of entry for Syrian refugees escaping civil war. Once a family is registered, they can come and go without restriction. Families often leave the camp for neighboring towns and villages in efforts to find better living conditions, but often return.

  • A Syrian family has received their tent for their new dwelling at Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, where at least 120,000 people are registered as refugees. Za’atari Refugee Camp is the second-largest camp in the world and the fourth-largest population center in Jordan. Chain-link fences, some topped with razor wire, protect the mobile units belonging to international aid agencies and food distribution sites. Routine food shortages in the camp have prompted demonstrations. Families are allowed to come and go from the camp.

  • This Syrian refugee child was able to get a prescription and new eyeglasses while enrolled at World Vision's remedial school in Irbid. Children at the school also are given a meal — savory pies with cheese and herbs and a drink — before they are released for the day. Children are often seen taking one of the two pies home to share with their family.

  • “My father was killed and I am afraid to tell anyone because I worry about people knowing that I do not have a father," says Ibrahim, 9 (right). He says he feels ashamed of being an orphan. Distant relatives care for the boy in Jordan, where he is enrolled in remedial classes. Ibrahim says he cherishes memories of his father. When he grows up, Ibrahim wants to be a teacher. He hopes to return to his homeland one day and live in this family’s home. He worries about people knowing that he is alone and without parents.

  • A teacher guides a boy in class. Certified teachers instruct 200 children in math, English, and Arabic at the remedial school at the Women’s Program Center. Here, the boy learns the basic words and numbers in Arabic. Most of the Syrian refugee children have missed so much school catching up has proved difficult. “We try to help them anyway we can to give them confidence to learn,” says Sawsar Othman, English teacher at the World Vision-funded remedial school in Jordan. “I can spot the refugee children because they have a certain sadness in their eyes. The loss is great, the sadness deep, but we can do part to help them in their future.”

  • Children in the World Vision-funded remedial class in Irbid, Jordan, have reason to smile: Notes tucked inside their new donated backpacks say they are cherished. Some notes are signed, while others are anonymous. All are written from the U.S. One note from Las Vegas reads: “Enjoy, and remember you are important.”

  • Leila al-Sakji’s long days are longer now with the influx of Syrian refugees in Irbid, Jordan. The guardian of children and widows, Leila is director of the Women’s Program Center in Irbid. She embraces the blossoming relationship with World Vision. Watching her action is like watching a modern-day saint. Women walk in with children in tow, seeking guidance and direction. Each leave with donated goods and lists of times and days for services. Children show up with backpacks and books on days when there is no school. They leave reluctantly, shoulders slumped but loaded with an appetite for learning. Children bubble with “Miss Leila” and the buzz is growing. The demand for remedial education is increasing so fast there is a sign in Arabic on the door next to the World Vision sticker. It reads: Teachers wanted.

  • After an afternoon of reading, writing, and math, scores of children head to their families in Irbid, Jordan, where World Vision funds a remedial school for 200 Syrian and Jordanian children. The organization also pays for transportation. For the children, the nearly two-hour class, offered three times a week, is the bright spot in their lives. Children often show up for school when there is no class in session.