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Zeinab's story: A child's refuge from war

Jordan, Syria, April 10, 2013

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Zeinab Al Farhaan is a bright, wide-eyed girl I met for the first time a month ago at Dream Land, a Mercy Corps playground inside Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. The 13-year-old arrived two months ago with her mother, six siblings, aunt and five cousins. They finally decided to leave Syria after bombings in their home city of Dara’a hit as close as their neighbor’s house.

Two of her older brothers, 18 and 20 years old, were fortunate to cross the border without any incidence with the Syrian Army, who regularly arrests young men without cause. “We weren’t scared to cross the border with them — we met the Free Syrian Army outside of Dara’a and they escorted us to the border,” she told me.

Her brothers, like many young adults from Syria, are now in limbo regarding their education. One has only a year left of high school and the other is in the middle of his second year of Arabic studies at university, but they have no opportunities to continue in Jordan.

As I was talking with Zeinab, tears instantly welled-up in her eyes when she thought about what she misses most in Syria, “I miss my dad. He stayed to work and protect our home.” Zeinab aspires to become an agricultural engineer like her father — a goal I have no doubt this able, studious child has the ability to reach.

Playgrounds brighten bleak surroundings

Zeinab likes her new school in the camp and she loves the playgrounds, with particular fervor for the swings. She and volumes of other children go to the playgrounds after school to play for hours or watch cartoons in the movie tent that Mercy Corps runs.

Playgrounds are nonexistent in most cities in Syria, including Dara’a, so not only are they an outlet for the children, they are an exciting addition to their life, in a far less then ideal situation.

Nizar Shudayfat, the Zaatari playground and activities manager, sees the play areas as “…safe places for the children to forget the conflict and war they lived through and the homes they have lost.” The playgrounds are no doubt a positive place for the children to let their fears and worries fall away.

With funding assistance from UNICEF, Mercy Corps recently opened up three additional colorful, fun playgrounds in the rapidly expanding camp, which now houses at least 140,000 people — half of them children. That makes for a total of five play areas that are full of children having a fabulous time on a daily basis. A children’s sports program is also in development with an athletic field currently under construction.

Yearning for a childhood

Yesterday Zeinab and I met again at Dream Land and talked about how life in the camp differs from when she first arrived two months ago. “I am happy here,” she said. “It’s better here because there is no war.”

The Dream Land playground is just 20 feet from her family’s tent. “I go to school and then play on the swings everyday with my friends. I was going to an activities program too, but I didn't like it. I would like to sew, but they only paint and draw,” she told me. (Nizar happily took a note of Zeinab’s request and is now making sewing a priority for the new activities program in development.)

School is also an enjoyable, stable element in her life, even though she explained, “School is better in Syria, you learn more in Syria. Arabic is my favorite class in Syria, it’s not as good here.” I asked her what her favorite class is in Zaatari and with a big smile she said, “Science, because I understand it more. Our teacher is really good. She’s Jordanian, she’s the best teacher here.” It was heartwarming to hear her speak about a significant benefit she is gaining during her time in the camp.

Still, the realities of the inconveniences of camp life have set in. “The bathrooms are far away [a ¼ mile walk] and dirty,” she continued. “We also have to carry water from the bathrooms. And it’s getting too hot and dusty.”

LEARN MORE: Desperately seeking water

Zeinab took me to meet her family in their tent. Her mother, with traditional Syrian graciousness, served me Turkish coffee, as we sat and made our introductions. Her brother pointed out the one photo on their sparse tent walls is of their father. I asked Zeinab how her father is, and her face lit up with the thought of him, “He is good, thank God. I talk to him everyday.”

Optimistic and finding everyday contentment as best she can, Zeinab is still focused on home. “I want to return to my country a lot, I want to see my father and relatives, and go back to my school,” she said intently. And then she ran back to the playground, one of the oases in this desert for tens of thousands of children far from home.

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