Editor’s Note: All names of Syrian refugees have been changed to protect anonymity. For background on the informal education alternatives available in Zaatari, read here.
Stepping inside the gates of Zaatari Refugee Camp, home to more than 80,000 displaced Syrians in northern Jordan and less than eight miles from the Syrian border, it is as if one has entered a small-scale subsection of Syria itself. Its minority population—young men reaching their early 20s—exists as one of individuals often caught between two potentials: an education, economic stability and familial future, or a return to Syria, to go home, to fight in the revolution that both pushed them from Syria and serves as an emblem of freedom, greater purpose and sacrificial honor.
Hakim, 26, studied economics in Syria before fleeing to Jordan and settling in Zaatari. He left behind in Daraa his mother and sisters, who are now supported by his brother working as a cashier in Saudi Arabia.
“It feels like a prison in the camp. I cannot leave,” he said. “I spent six months outside the camp when I arrived, but it didn’t work.
“It’s very hard [in neighboring towns] because the wages are very low. And it’s not eight hours; it’s 12 hours a day. I would prefer to remain in the camp with my relatives.”
Hakim is representative of many young men in the camp.
Hakim cannot send money when he cannot find work. There are no jobs for an economist in the camp. He is unable to return to university to continue his education as planned, and he now struggles to find even basic day jobs. With the closest portions of the border closed, his mother and sisters are, essentially, stuck in Daraa. While their village is under control of the rebellion, that plays little role in their safety and protection.
“Protected? No,” Hakim’s uncle, Saed, said. “[The regime] can shell it. Explosive bottles, heavy shelling. Almost every day.”
According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, 49 percent of the individuals in Zaatari hail from Daraa, a region that starts just north of the border. The bombings on Daraa can be heard and felt at the camp frequently, acting as a consistent reminder of the realities now determining the fate of refugees’ villages and continuing refugee status.
For some young men, this can serve as motivation to go to school, seek a degree and hope for an opportunity to move on to university.
For others, it is a constant reminder of their desire—or, preference—to return, and for many men within that number, to fight. Too few jobs, too little food and the absence of effective sanitation systems—providing a breeding ground for potential disease—only work to compound that desire to seek an alternative, even if it comes with greater challenges and suffering. The mentality of many is if it’s going to be bad either way, it’s better to suffer at home, in Syria.
Fadi, 21, was shot seven times in the abdomen at the start of the revolution after being told a checkpoint was protected by the rebellion. After regime snipers hit Fadi upon walking through, he found himself in Jordan for medical treatment and a kidney removal. Three months later, he was back in Syria fighting alongside the rebellion forces. After being shot in the hand and leg four and a half months in, he returned to Jordan to reunite with his family in Zaatari, where he remains now.
“I want to fight. I want to go back and fight,” Fadi said, showing the seven bullet scars spattered across his stomach, including the large gash used to take out his kidney. “I want to take Bashar al-Assad down from his throne.”
Samir, 22, initially left Syria partly in order to escape what he referred to as the draft. Being of the age to serve in the army, he said he would be “burned alive” if he was found hiding from serving in the army in Syria. He came alone from Daraa before his family joined him a year later.
After being in the camp now for two and half years, he said he wants nothing more than to return to Syria. He dropped out of school after the seventh grade, and now works in his father’s shop in the camp. Education in the camp was never a real consideration. With few options for a way out of life as he knows it now, he sees returning to Syria as the best opportunity.
“I have some friends that are fighting. Some days are quiet and nice; some days it is hectic and difficult,” Samir said of his plans to leave Zaatari. “Being murdered is better than being here.”
In a summary of Zaatari registration activities by the UNHCR for the second week of August, 701 refugees left Jordan to return to Syria, 36 percent of whom were living in Zaatari. Of these, 94 percent are reported to have returned to Daraa. Specifics as to reasons for departure are left to estimations and assumptions, but patterns and practicalities point to those whose village has a supposedly comparable situation to the living conditions in Zaatari. This number would include young men of fighting age returning to Syria to join militant ranks.
“People who are leaving Syria are running away from death and bombing,” explained one young refugee father, 24. “Those who are leaving the camp cannot survive the heat, the desert, the bad situation of living here.”
The camp, on the whole, is majority women and children, according to the organizations running camp operations. As one international organization employee in the camp explained, “Some [men] come, they drop their family here, and they go back to fight.”
The young men who do stay in the camp have few options when they are needed to work and provide the essential income to survive. With the area referred to as SyriaTel—the highest point in the camp that receives Syrian cell signal and allows refugees to use their home SIM cards to phone back to friends and family—news of fighting and livelihood in home villages is received first-hand. A direct connection can be either a deterrent or a motivator.
“They are aware of what is happening around them. This is not an isolated camp,” the employee said. “The floor is literally shaking sometimes when the fighting is happening close to the border.”
The pull experienced by many young men of Zaatari—between wanting to return, wanting to fight alongside friends, and wanting to create a life—weighs heavily. The few who are pursuing academia had the recent opportunity to apply for the DAFI scholarship, funded by a grant of more than $1.8 million from the British-based Said Foundation, which will send 40 Syrian refugees in Jordan to a university in their host country. Fifteen of these scholarships will go to students in Zaatari.
Even still, fifteen does not reach the number of eligible, of-age male and female youth in the camp, and is even further from the number college-aged youth in Zaatari who have forgone academics in favor of needing to work to support themselves and their families—a responsibility not reserved just for older children, but for students of all ages.
Mohammad, a teacher in one of the Zaatari schools, explained that attendance from the 10th grade on is poor, with few in attendance.
“They don’t trust the education, and they’re afraid no one’s going to recognize their certificates when they’ve graduated,” Mohammad said. “The elder students…need to support their families, so they’re all over the camp working.”
Despite this, numbers in education—both formal and informal—have been slowly improving.
A far cry from when the camp first opened when only 6,000 to 7,000 of the more than 30,000 registered school-age residents were enrolled, there are now 19,000 registered school-age residents, and 15,000 are enrolled in school.
“[Of the older students] who do attend, they are more focused on all the subjects in order to pass the year because they have ambition,” Mohammad explained. “They want to pass the year and maybe go to university because they have a dream, they have a motivation.”