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Helping young refugees play

Jordan, Syria, August 30, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Nine-year-old Amani (left) and her best friend Iyat both braved a harrowing journey to escape the increasing violence in their native Syria. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Children make up over half of the population the crowded Zaatari refugee camp, but there are few recreational activities to keep them occupied. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps is building playgrounds in the camp, to give children like Amani and Iyat a break from anxiety and a chance to be carefree kids. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Just six miles south of the Jordan-Syria border, in the middle of a barren, windswept desert, there’s a haven of safety for more than 20,000 Syrians who have fled their homes in recent months.

Amani arrived here at the Zaatari refugee camp three weeks ago with her mother and four brothers and sisters. The 47-mile journey from her home in Daraa was more treacherous than any nine-year-old should have to endure, but it was a better option than staying in a place of unimaginable violence.

“Before we fled our town, I saw people’s throats being cut by knife in the streets,” said Amani through tear-filled eyes as she recounted the horrors she witnessed. “There was blood everywhere. Bombs were falling on our village and security forces raided our home.”

Families left with no other choice

The increasingly intense fighting in Syria has driven more than 300,000 people to neighboring countries since April. They have often escaped in the dark of night, able to bring only the clothes they’re wearing, and risking their lives to cross dangerous territory.

Amani and her four siblings followed their mother on the long walk through valleys and mountains in the middle of the night to avoid detection. But her grandparents were too old and weak to make the difficult journey, so her father stayed behind to try to protect them.

Amani’s mother, Safa, told me it has been very hard living in the camp and caring for her five children without her husband to help them.

“My children have nightmares and wake up crying for their father in the middle of the night,” said Safa. “Since the violence came to our town and we had to leave, my children don’t behave normally. I am very concerned but don’t know what to do.”

Playgrounds are a refuge

Even the refugee camp, far from the fighting, is a distressing place for children, who make up nearly half of the population here. There are brutal sandstorms almost daily that force them to stay in their small, crowded tents for hours on end with nothing to do. When the sandstorms subside and they can go outside, they have to contend with scorching heat, no shade and very few recreational activities.

One of the few escapes the refugee children have is the playground that Mercy Corps has set up in the camp. It is hard to miss — just follow the unexpected sound of laughter and you will find swarms of kids swinging, sliding and playfully arguing over whose turn it is. A second playground is almost complete.

Rob Maroni, Mercy Corps’ country director in Jordan, explained why playgrounds and activities for young people in the refugee camp are a top priority: “Providing an outlet for kids who have been through unimaginable, violent events and left everything they know behind is critical to helping them recover and just be kids.”

Amani, like most kids in the camp, wants to go home as soon as she can. “We had a happy home with four bedrooms and a nice living room and a garden. I had toys and clothes and there were parks nearby to play in. Now we have nothing.”

But Amani’s face lights up as she plays. She tells her new friends that she wants to be a nurse when she grows up so she can help people in need. The playgrounds help brighten each day for her and best friend, Iyat, 11 years old, in otherwise harsh and bleak surroundings.

“We go everyday. It is the only place we can go that our parents feel is safe,” Iyat said. “I like the slide and the monkey bars the best.”

Amani’s mother is also grateful for the playgrounds. “My children need to go out and play and exercise. It is the only normal place for children here, and it also gives me a break and a chance to clean the tent while they are out playing.”

No one knows how long the camp will be here and when the Syrian refugees will be able to go home again. Many anticipate it will be a long haul. In the meantime, Mercy Corps will be here for the youngest refugees, helping them hold on to their childhood.

How You Can Help

Children are often the most vulnerable in the face of war or disaster. Your gift to our Syria Crisis Response will help us reach more kids who are suffering through the Syrian conflict. Donate today.