Syrian refugees pursue education for their children, in hope for the future

Refugees of the Syrian civil war say their new life has many burdens, but they hope that education for their children will ensure a brighter future. “When we remember the old days, we ask: how could we complain so much?” Nariman el Kourdi, a Syrian refugee living in the Jordanian city of Ramtha, told reporters through a translator Oct 27. 

El Kourdi now lives in the Bwoida village in Ramtha, a northwestern Jordanian city of about 120,000 people near the Syrian border; Bwoida has a population of 12,000, including about 2,500 Syrians. Ramtha has close cultural ties to Daraa, the predominantly Sunni Muslim town of about 100,000 people located fewer than 30 miles away, in Syria. 

There, the Syrian government’s violent response to protests in March 2011 helped trigger a series of events that led to the outbreak of armed rebellion against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The rebellion and the government response had severe consequences for el Kourdi and other Syrians who fled the violence. “I used to live in Daraa,” el Kourdi said. 

“And then we had many bombs, many attacks. It wasn’t safe at all to stay.” She moved to Jordan with her children by bus, accompanying a neighbor. “When I came, it wasn’t difficult to cross. I came legally.” Latifah, a mother of four who asked that her last name not be used, also left her home in Daraa “because of the attacks, the bombs.” “We didn’t feel safe. We came here seeking a safe place.”

Her crossing to Jordan was more risky than el Kourdi's. Buses with the Syrian Free Army, a moderate rebel group, took Latifah, her children, and about 300 others, mainly women and children, to a location near the Syria-Jordan border. Then they got off the buses to walk. 

“Before we arrived at the borders – at night, there was not even moonlight – we had to walk at night to cross the borders so that the Syrian military would not attack us,” Latifah said. “We gave our children sleeping drops,” she continued. “They were really frightened. I was holding them very tight. ‘Keep silent, keep silent,’ I said.” 

After crossing the Jordanian border, she and her children were hosted in camps until a relative in Jordan agreed to sponsor them. Only about 100,000 of the estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees in Jordan live in camps. The camps can seem like prisons to them, and they fear living alongside refugees they do not know. 

Most try to live with relatives and friends, or support themselves in their own apartments despite Jordan’s legal barriers to employment for refugees. Latifah said she wanted the rest of the world to know “the suffering that we are going through, the lack of opportunities for work, most of all the lack of opportunities for our children.” “Even the men are suffering because they can’t work,” she said. 

El Kourdi’s parents had moved to Jordan before the conflict in Syria. However, her brother and his family are still in the troubled country. Her husband has worked in Kuwait for years. She said Syrian government authorities would have detained him for any reason at the border. “That is why I am here, it is easy to meet him,” she said. 

“Because of the high cost of living we haven’t seen him in one year. He has to work double.” “Psychologically it is difficult,” she said. Ahmed, her four-month-old son, hasn’t seen his father. Latifah also voiced concern that U.N. assistance to refugees is endangered. 

“We live off of coupons we get from the U.N. We are frightened because we heard that some coupons were cancelled and we don’t know why.” U.N. World Food Program spokesperson Steve Taravella told CNA that the program had managed to avoid cuts in Jordan and Lebanon, though funding in December faces “dire” shortfalls. 

The program also cuts refugees if they no longer meet needs-criteria. The cost of living is posing a major problem for refugees such as el Kourdi and Latifah. The influx of refugees has tripled, quadrupled or quintupled the price of rent, affecting both refugees and Jordanian citizens. “We have another big problem here: the overcrowding of schools,” Latifah said. “No space, no books.” 

The Catholic relief agency Caritas Jordan, assisted by the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services, is a main provider of preschool education in the area. El Kourdi’s five-year-old daughter Rawan goes to a Catholic Relief Services-supported kindergarten in Bwoida, as does one of Latifah’s children. “Since Rawan started to attend schooling, her personality has changed,” El Kourdi said. 

“Her personality was not very strong. She became stronger. She learned how to write.” The school’s walls are decorated with Dora the Explorer and Disney characters, alongside Jordanian flags and photos of the Jordanian king, Abdullah II. The children learn English, Arabic, and other skills. 

Without intervention, the stresses of refugee life can mean many refugee children regress in their education. They can forget life skills like toilet training, reading, and even how to speak. El Kourdi said her greatest desire is for her children to continue their studies. “I have smart kids,” she said.

Asked if she wants to return home, she answered “of course.” “I would really wish for things to become peaceful.” As for Latifah, said there is one thing she misses the most about home. “The Syria breeze, the fresh air.” 

By Kevin J. Jones
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