x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Jordan's school tents of hope in a time of uncivil war

The school's classrooms are a modest pastiche of white tarp and brown canvas tents but for many who have fled the violence across the border, the school offers renewed hope.

Syrian refugee children start their first day of school at Al Zaatari camp in Jordan.
Syrian refugee children start their first day of school at Al Zaatari camp in Jordan.

ZAATARI, Jordan // Unicef and Jordan's ministry of education have inaugurated a school for Syrians at the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp.

The school's classrooms are a modest pastiche of white tarp and brown canvas tents but for many who have fled the violence across the border, the school offers renewed hope.

The camp near Mafreq in northern Jordan is, according to the Jordanian Hashemite charity organisation, home to about 35,000 refugees of which about 25 per cent are of school age.

Although the Jordanian Society for Human Rights said that refugees receive two meals a day, it added that the camp's conditions are "unhealthy" and "unbearable", which has sparked some camp residents to protest and demand improved living standards.

Just a few days before the school opened on Thursday last, Jordanian riot police fired tear gas at angry refugees who had torched tents and ambulances.

"My school was bombed in Deraa and we cannot forget what happened," said Manal, 16, who fled with her family two months ago. "But we are tired here. There is too much dust and it is very hot," she said.

The school, though a temporary fix, improves the situation for the camp's children who can continue their education in one of the 14 tents that are used as classrooms.

Andrew Harper, a representative of the UN's refugee agency in Jordan, said "a lack of time and money" has complicated efforts to help the refugees.

"Despite the difficulties and challenge, you got a situation where people are at least safe and children can go to school. They are being fed and they got access to water and health care and, most important, they are safe here," he said.

Classes started informally a few days ago for pupils aged 6 to 18. Another 500 students have registered and many more are waiting to begin classes as the number of refugees continues to grow.

By the end of October, a prefabricated school complex is to open and will accommodate an additional 4,000 pupils.

Planners, anticipating a further influx of refugees, designed the school complex to accommodate up to 20,000 pupils should the camp's population swell to 80,000 by the end of the year.

Despite the scorching heat and the desert sandstorms, some children were excited about school.

"I was sad because I left my country. But I had fun during my first day of school here," said Hana, a fifth-grader who fled Deraa two months ago. "I miss my school too. I used to play a lot with my friends. The school was hit by two shells," she said.

"We got bored with nothing to do before the school started," said Muna, another fifth-grader standing nearby.

Some of the older girls expressed relief that they no longer had to sing the Syrian national anthem and pro-Baath Party songs. Other refugees see different benefits from the opening of the school.

"I want to enrol my children, I need a break from my kids," Um Hassan, a Syrian refugee said.

"My life is on hold. I wish I can return but yesterday, Basra Al Sham, where I come from, was hit by four shells."

"We have to tolerate it here. It is better than being bombed."

smaayeh@thenational.ae