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City of lost children

24 April 2017, Impact of Our Work, Voices from the Field

Thousands of children far from home.

Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan is currently home to about 80,000 refugees forced to flee the ongoing violence in Syria. Save the Children Australia’s Head of Campaigns, Tim Norton, provides his insights after a day exploring the camp – now a vast city with a displaced population.

The Za’atari refugee camp is huge. The scale really hits you as you drive through the main streets with stocked shops, soccer grounds and teenagers having BMX bike races over jumps. It feels very settled. There’s an air of calm, with families, kids and aid workers all milling around, chatting amidst the tents and portable sheds.

At the food station, our staff work with the World Food Program to distribute rations to around 17,000 families who live every day inside the camp – a monumental task that is undertaken and completed in the early hours of the morning. The rations are fairly basic – bulgur wheat, lentils, pasta, rice, sugar and vegetable oil – but they’re enough to sustain the families. UNHCR complementary food rations are simultaneously distributed, consisting of tuna, tomato paste, canned meat, chickpeas, fava beans, tea and halva.

Save the Children staff manage huge numbers of people who file in every day to collect their rations. They also manage the distribution of ATM cards that are pre-loaded with support funds for families to help them buy their own food. The infrastructure of the camp has grown to the point where there are proper supermarkets operating here, under the watch of aid agencies to ensure prices are kept fair.

Next stop was the maternal health and nutrition program – essentially a mother and baby hangout space where we run groups that bring mums together, as well as grandmothers, aunts and sisters. Here, they share ideas and learn about hygiene, sanitation and breastfeeding.

We spoke with mothers about the challenge of raising their babies in the harsh weather of the region, and about the future they wish for with their children and families. The key message they shared was one of gratitude for the support, materials and services they receive through attending the program.

The staff here are amazing. Passionate and positive. They tell me about the thousands of families who come through the centre. Of the gains they've made in scaling back the use of baby formula within the camp. And of those who have returned to their homes in Syria, but then driven for hours to return to the camp to visit and maintain connection with the staff.

During our visit, a refugee family brought us a tray of incredibly strong coffee. They insisted we come to visit their nearby home, which was nothing more than a tin shed. The generosity and friendliness of people who have been through so much, and who have so little, is incredibly heartwarming.

Finally, we visited the Save the Children-run kindergarten, which includes early learning programs as well as psychosocial support and other supportive services. We got down on the floor and joined the local staff for lessons, dancing, finger painting, drawing and counting. One little girl, around seven years old, was fascinated at the pictures I showed her on my phone of my own baby boy. She used it to teach me the Arabic word "jamila", which means "beautiful".

While the kids are learning, the mums take the opportunity to talk amongst themselves about the challenges they face, any fears or problems they are having, and about day-to-day life living in the camp.

More than half of Za’atari’s population are children. A large proportion are orphaned or separated from their parents and other relatives. Save the Children’s recent report, Invisible Wounds, found that Syria is now at a tipping point where millions of children have been so consistently exposed to trauma that their chances of recovering fully are dwindling by the day.

Witnessing our programs firsthand confirms how important our work here is, and the huge impact it’s having for children fleeing the conflict across the border.

We provide food and treatment for illness, trauma and malnutrition. We operate a space where mums can interact and learn from each other, and ensure they are equipped to take care of their babies. We run a kindergarten and early learning, making sure these kids can read, write and prepare for school and a brighter future.

All of this is run by local staff who often drive hours every day to reach the camp, working long hours in the baking sun or freezing winter. Many of them facing uncertain futures and fluctuating circumstances.

In a way, Za’atari provides a snapshot of all the good and bad parts of humanity. There’s an air of despair and uncertainty but also a real feeling of hope, community and resilience in the face of unthinkable hardship.

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