Today one billion children are living in countries and territories affected by war or conflict. The United Nations named 2014 one of the worst years on record for children around the world. According to the report, an estimated 15 million are directly impacted in places like the Central African Republic, the Palestinian territories, and Ukraine. But it’s the nearly four-year-old war in Syria, which has now extended into Iraq with the presence of the Islamic State, that has been the leading contributor of trauma to children.
The need to resettle Syrians outside the overburdened Middle East is growing. And without education, investment, and opportunity for young Syrians, there is an entire generation of leaders who may not be able to make it past the sixth grade. It’s these young people who don’t have access to formal schooling, who are marrying off at younger ages, and who are becoming unexpected heads of households, that leave us with a generation in crisis.
We’re asking, what can a country doomed with a lost generation learn from past violent conflicts like the genocide in Rwanda, and what can the United States learn about its own humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border?
Our story begins in Jordan, one of the nations taking in the largest number of refugees from Syria’s civil war, at a camp called Zaatari.
VOICES OF ZAATARI
“No one expected this crisis to happen,” Iris Blom, the UNHCR deputy camp coordinator at Zaatari, told us in a caravan located 7.5 miles away from the Jordanian-Syrian border. “Syria, traditionally, was not a refugee producing country but a host country. Three years ago it changed and we never expected that to happen.”
As of July 2014, the Islamic State controlled a third of Syrian territory and most of its oil and gas production, establishing itself as the major opposition force, according to reports. But the conflict in Syria didn’t always involve the presence of ISIS.
The conflict began in 2011 amidst the Arab Spring, when peaceful protests inspired by earlier revolutions like Egypt and Tunisia took a violent turn. The government of dictator Bashar al-Assad responded with kidnapping, rape, torture, and the murder of activists and their families including children.
Now the civil war is entering its fourth year, with no side seizing power. About 3.8 million people have taken refuge in neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. And yet, only 20 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan are in camps like Zaatari. Approximately 80 percent live in urban areas, hidden in plain sight.
Jordan is exhausting almost every resource it has to provide for these displaced people, and other countries in the region are hitting their limit. Lebanon has enforced strict visa requirements for Syrians entering the nation.
“WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO US IS TO NORMALIZE THEIR LIVES.”
IRIS BLOM – UNHCR DEPUTY CAMP COORDINATOR
We met Reema on our first day in Zaatari. She’s 19 years old. Like any teenager, she checks in on her friends on Facebook; she makes plans on Whatsapp. There’s just one thing. She’s been living here in Zaatari — one of the world’s largest refugee camps — for nearly two years.
Reema is one of the lucky ones. She shares a caravan with her parents, brothers, and sisters. Their home is equipped with air conditioning and satellite TV. Reema is a community organizer for ACTED, an NGO that supports vulnerable populations around the world. She also works with AptART, a group of artists and activists providing a creative outlet for children in the camp.
She told us her friends who are still in Syria are often jealous of all the new people she’s meeting in the camp.
“My friend [in Syria] always says, ‘I feel sad, I feel boring,'” Reema said. “When they are chatting with me, I tell them, ‘I was just having fun today. I do this and I do this. I meet these people, I meet these kids.’ And they say, ‘Please I want to come. I want to come with my parents.'”
This is stability in Zaatari, home to about 83,000 people, making it one of the most concentrated settlements of Syrian refugees in the world. In light of the number of men who have been killed or captured or are still fighting in the Syrian war, about 80 percent of refugees are women and children.
Reema had plans to become a doctor in Syria, now she is trying to continue her studies to enter a Jordanian university. All of this is rare. Most of the young women we spoke to in Zaatari aren’t as hopeful as Reema.
Twenty two year-old Dua’a told us, “Here education is expensive…I really never wished to come here to the camp because…I lost my university.”
UNICEF estimates that two-thirds of Syrian refugee children have dropped out of school. As more young people suspend their education for financial reasons, more young women are getting married.
“A lot of them think that they have lost their life anyway,” Reema said. “They will not continue with their study. They can’t pay for university because it’s so expensive…So a lot of them are getting married.”
The Jordanian government estimates that 32 percent of all registered marriages among refugees in the country involved a girl under the age of 18.That’s an increase of 25 percent between 2013 and 2014, and more than twice as high as the rate of teen marriages before the war.
Unlike Reema, Dua’a is not able to continue her education in the camp. More than half of Syrian refugees in Jordan are not receiving any formal education. Instead, young people are supporting their families, raising small children,and stepping up in the absence of fathers and husbands.
Ebtisam is a 29-year-old mother of four. Her husband is missing. She told us she’s not sure if he was killed in the war or by Assad. Now she’s become the head of her household, a role played by almost half of the women in Zaatari, and she struggles to make ends meet.
“I don’t have enough income to support my kids,” Ebtisam said. “The coupons are not enough and I’m on my own. I have no one to help me.”
UNHCR reports only one-fifth of refugee women are gainfully employed. Ebtisam said she doesn’t leave her home because she has to care for her four children.
“I’m responsible for them. I’m their mother, father, brother,” she said. “I am everything for them because they don’t have a family here…I don’t actually mix with anyone. I have my kids and I look after them, and that’s all I care about.”
BUILDING A CITY OUT OF SAND
Bassem has three sons, one daughter, and represents some 14,000 people in Zaatari. He told us he’s the “big boss” of his district — effectively the town mayor. There’s a boss for every street and a “big boss” for every district. The bosses work together with UNHCR staff to help neighbors get basic needs like tents, caravans, food, and water, but they also act as mediators between family members.
Bassem told us, “Sometimes I get women on the edge of divorce and fighting with their husbands…We try to help them solve their problems whether these problems were financial or family problems.”
The bosses of Zaatari are connectors and problem solvers, and they have a finger on the pulse of the camp. So while women may be running the households in the absence of their husbands, brothers and sons, it’s men who are the bosses of Zaatari.
The camp was first opened on July 28, 2012. It has grown exponentially ever since. Shops lining the main commercial street, ironically called Champs-Élysée, started as a black market until UNHCR took notice and encouraged grassroots initiatives. Together they’ve seen this type of enterprise grow.
UNHCR’s Iris Blom told us, “What I find amazing here in this camp is to see how innovative and creative and energetic the Syrian people have been here.”
BASSEM’S MOTHER WAS 14 YEARS OLD WHEN SHE HAD HER FIRST CHILD. TODAY BASSEM HAS 18 SIBLINGS.
In July of 2014, the New York Times reported there were about 14,000 households and over 3,000 businesses and shops in Zaatari. We saw barbershops and butcheries, ice cream shops and fruit stands, gaming hubs, bridal salons, toy shops, and shoe repair stands. Some shop owners say they’ve paid up to $10,000 for prime real estate on Champs.
“It’s a piece of art in many ways,” Blom added. “They make it their home, which is of course on one hand very sad, but on the other hand it also demonstrates that they are planning now to send their children to school.”
Under the facade of normalcy, it’s possible as an outsider to forget that the people who line the streets here were driven out of their homeland by atrocity.
We spent a few hours with Reema on the first day we met her. She told us how she met her group of girlfriends in Zaatari, how they keep in touch on Facebook, how she likes teaching young kids to paint, and where her favorite ice cream shop was, but she also told us how her father was arrested in Syria and how scared she was when he was taken away. She told us how her cousin died and how she couldn’t say goodbye. She told us what it was like to go back to her house that was burned down in Syria and all that was left was small stones. She told us how she couldn’t even find the new shoes she bought just two days prior.
When we asked who will rebuild her home and who will rebuild Syria, she said, “I think we will rebuild Syria. You know when we came to [Zaatari] it wasn’t like this. You can see how much the Syrian people have created. This was just desert. You come here now and you will find a city, you will find shops. They build the shops from nothing. They built their life from nothing. You will find very clever things that they built here without anything.”
Twenty years ago another civil war in another remote place led to the death of an estimated 800,000 people in 100 days. Unlike, the genocide in Rwanda, the war in Syria is part of a wider regional struggle with multiple rebel forces fighting. Yet, the two conflicts are not that different. Both have been classified as civil wars, both led to widespread displacement, and both have had a disproportionate effect on women and children, so many of whom were left without husbands and fathers.
But after years of investing in its youngest generation — girls as well as boys — Rwanda offers many lessons.
It was 1994 when more civilians were killed in a three-month murder spree than just about any other three-month period in human history — including the Holocaust. It was the government’s use of propaganda that compelled Hutu extremists to slaughter Tutsis on the basis of an ethnic divide.
When the militias moved in to the region, millions of Rwandan refugees moved out to countries like Uganda, Burundi, and what’s now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some even came to the United States.
When the killing stopped, there were 95,000 orphans. By 1998, 85,000 children remained heads of household. Women made up about 70 percent of the population.
One of the more heinous outcomes of the genocide was the rape committed against women, often attacked by men who were HIV-positive. At least 500,000 women are believed to have been raped — 67 percent of female survivors have either died from AIDS or lived under its debilitating effect.
“THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY FAILED RWANDA…THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY IS GUILTY OF SINS OF OMISSION.”
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan headed the peacekeepers at the time of the 1994 genocide, and to this day there is a sense that the world should have done more.
About 10 years ago at a memorial conference at the UN Annan said, “I believed at that time that I was doing my best. But I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support.”
We met 28-year-old Nadine Mwisensazi on the steps of the Kigali Genocide Memorial. She told us she was eight when she witnessed the murder of her parents. Today she is in charge of health for Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide.
Nadine told us, “We have to be strong. I’m a genocide survivor too, so that makes me to be committed more with them because I feel what they feel.”
On the wall inside the Kigali memorial is a sign that reads, “Survivors carried scars of torture, mutilation, rape, infection, and starvation. There was rampant lawlessness, looting, and chaos. The infrastructure had been destroyed, the ability to govern dismantled. Homes had been demolished, belongings stolen.”
Nadine said she remembers everything.
“My mom knew that she would never survive,” she explained. “The [perpetrators] knew her and my father. So when they came to kill them…[my mom] told me, ‘I will never have the chance to talk to you again but I want to be strong, I want you to be someone one day.’”
Today Rwanda is one of the safest and most liveable places in Africa. Under President Paul Kagame, the economy expanded by an average of 8 percent annually over the past five years alone. In many ways, Rwanda’s success makes it an outlier among other countries that have experienced forced migration. But Kagame’s administration has encountered some criticism. According to the New York Times, he has a reputation for being merciless and brutal, and has cracked down on his own people.
Still, most Rwandans credit the country’s leadership with the country’s improvement.
Claud Mugabe is a friend of Nadine’s and a tour guide at the memorial center. Like Nadine, he’s a genocide survivor and has devoted his young career to educating the next generation of Rwandans.
“This help from the government also helps a little bit for the people who are angry, the people who are dispirited because of the genocide. Nowadays we don’t have people who are still angry. But we always remember.”
Claud told us how his mother would dress him in girls’ clothing during the genocide to hide him from perpetrators who often targeted men and young boys.
“I wore a dress when we were moving around. No one identified me. It’s how I escaped,” Claud said.
We asked Nadine if she resented Hutus for killing her parents. “The one who hid me was a Hutu,” he said. “And I had an opportunity to see the good people who were Hutu, and the bad people who were Hutu.”
Claud added, “Nowadays, the Rwandan government is focusing on educating young people so that whatever happens, whenever they see signs of conflict, they should take the responsibility to stop it and manage it.”
Part of the government’s investment was in women. Rwanda has a higher percentage of women in parliament than any other country (64 percent compared to only 18 percent in the United States Congress.)
The Akilah Institute for Women is just one educational program making that happen. The college was founded in 2010 and it’s an opportunity for women to earn a degree in entrepreneurship, information systems, or hospitality management.
Sandrine, a current student at Akilah, explained, “before [the government] was just improving boys. But now there is gender balance. Everyone is being empowered.”
For many, rebuilding Rwanda is not just about the future, but a tribute to the past. Nadine recalled her mother’s advice with perfect clarity. “I want to be strong for her,” she said. “I really want to be someone she wanted me to be. I have to be strong for her. I want to finish something. She didn’t have that opportunity. “
CROSSING THE BORDER
Rwanda is moving forward, while Syria’s future remains uncertain. But the crisis for children and young adults isn’t just overseas. Last year, there were nearly 70,000 children fleeing Central America desperate to make our home their home right now. They seek the promise of American opportunity and long to join family in the U.S. But the most common reason? Crime, gang threats, and deadly violence.
At the height of the child migrant crisis, the UN spoke with hundreds of these young Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans. More than half said their primary reason for leaving was violence.
We know the story from the U.S. side of the border, but here’s a closer look at a generation in crisis in our own backyard.
For years, Honduras was known as the most dangerous country in the world; San Pedro Sula is particularly notorious. Today, El Salvador is the most dangerous country in the world not engulfed in an ongoing war. Last year, there were 3,942 murders — nearly 11 each day, 57 percent more than in 2013 — a staggering killing rate in a country of only 6.1 million people.
We visited a repatriation center last year in the heart of San Salvador, where El Salvador’s Department of Migrant Care and other organizations like Save the Children provide psychological and physical care for migrants who were caught in Mexico trying to get to the United States.
Young migrants spoke about the cold, hunger, and loneliness they felt on the road to the U.S. Others say the hardest part about being on the run was being disconnected from Facebook. These are teenagers — or children — after all.
Others reflected on something much graver.
“ONE OF THE THINGS WE’VE BEEN ADVOCATING IN UNICEF IS THAT THE COST OF INACTION FAR OUTWEIGHS THE COST OF ACTION IN PREVENTING VIOLENCE, ABUSE, EXPLOITATION, AND NEGLECT.”
Miguel, whose name has been changed for the sake of his safety, is 16-years-old. His family paid a coyote, or people smuggler, $6,000 to send him to the U.S. He’s been caught trying to cross twice. The coyote will give him one more chance before giving up. Miguel isn’t sure he wants to try again.
“It feels ugly,” Miguel explained. “It’s so ugly to go by yourself, and leave your family, without knowing anyone. It’s ugly.”
Miguel’s story is all too common. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says coyotes charge an average of $5,000 to $7,000 to bring a child to the U.S. — an amount that can represent more than 18 months of earnings for an entire family.
It should be noted that this year the number of child migrants does appear to have decreased — about 39 percent. But the crisis is far from over.
Samuel Carías, who works with the Salvadoran Institute for the Integral Development of Children and Adolescents told us, “If all the kids in El Salvador leave, it would be a very tragic scenario. The development of El Salvador is contingent on the younger population. These are the next leaders, teachers, doctors. If the kids all leave our country, it would be detrimental to our country’s development.”
Still, UNICEF says the Central American governments seeing a large number of children coming to the United States could be doing more.
Susan Bissell, Head of Child Protection for the United Nations Children’s Fund, explained, “This is a callout from me to those governments — investments in education, all children in all of those countries need access to good education, need access to opportunity. And the violence they experience, the violence their community experiences, needs to be addressed.”
Why are the children in Syria who escape violence “refugees,” while the children in Honduras and El Salvador are “migrants”?
“We look at a context like Syria and because there is a war, because there are warring parties, we are able to apply this official definition,” Bissell said. “But the states, the home countries, of those children from Central America would actually have to declare there is war…Of course no state wants to say it’s in a state of war or conflict that triggers a number of actions and that’s why we see this differentiation.”
And that differentiation matters. In terms of our response as an international community and for Americans it changes the entire nature of the way we talk about children who are coming across the border.
A NOTE FROM ALICIA MENENDEZ
We’ve heard it said — over and over again — Syria and the Middle East cannot afford to lose a generation to hopelessness. But it’s bigger than that. In every country and region where conflicts reign, our greatest hope is that the youngest generation will be the future architects of peace and prosperity. Without them, we accept that our best case scenario is the status quo and the worst is a future more violent and uncertain than the period we’re living in right now. It’s why the crisis in Central America is bigger than migrants crossing our border. And it’s why Rwanda’s success is such a powerful reminder of what is possible.
We may not know what tomorrow holds, but we know this: education, investment, and opportunity today are the best shot we have at ensuring that this generation in crisis is not lost.
Before I left Zaatari I told Reema that she was exceptional. She didn’t know the word and put it into the translator app on her cell phone. She read the definition, looked up at me and said, “Exceptional. I will always remember this word.”