Aya's story: A future in limbo

Jordan, Syria, September 17, 2013

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  • Aya is only a year away from graduating high school, but has no opportunity to finish in Jordan's incompatible education system. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • She spends her days helping her mother maintain their family's household in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp: cooking, cleaning and fetching the limited supply of water to do it all. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • The traditional breakfast that Aya helps her mother with every morning. The preparation and serving of food is at the center of cultural traditions they try to hold on to from home. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • The blue building is the WASH station in Aya's camp neighborhood, where bathrooms, showers and the water supply are located. Mercy Corps wells and pumps are helping more water get to these distribution points. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Aya is uncomfortable in the camp and misses school, but the aspiring school teacher finds happiness playing with the younger kids on the playground. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps

For millions of young people who are caught in Syria’s civil war, school is out of reach — and has been for quite some time. Thousands of Syrian high school seniors who have sought refuge in Jordan are especially left in limbo within Jordan’s incompatible educational system.

Aya, 17, has one year of high school to finish, but there is no school she can attend to complete her studies. She worries about her future.

For now, all she can do is focus on contributing to her family’s household amid the challenges of living in Zaatari refugee camp.

“My life is like a routine, I wake up, wash up, get water, cook, then we all gather and eat,” she said.

Traditions help but the camp is not home

While chores take up much of the day, Aya and her mother also make an effort to maintain their Syrian traditions despite the surroundings. Serving tea and Turkish coffee to guests in dainty cups and glasses is a Syrian tradition that does not die wherever you are, even in a tent in a refugee camp in the middle of the Jordanian desert.

“We never expected to come to the camp. We never had it mind, but then our house was hit. If our house was hit, then our relative’s house could be hit. It was not safe,” Aya told me solemnly.

The bombing hit the family of twelve’s house in the middle of the night eight months ago in their hometown of Sheikh Miskeen in Southern Syria. Her eight-year old brother was hit in the head by a piece of debris and her niece and nephew with glass. “In a blink of an eye the wall had fallen on top of us,” she remembered. Thankfully, all of them are fine now.

As they served breakfast during my visit, Aya observed, “Breakfast is different here than in Syria.” While all I saw was a beautifully displayed array of tempting dishes, Aya pointed out, “Anything we make in the house in Syria — lebaneh (thick yogurt), cheese, makdoos (miniature stuffed and marinated eggplant) — we don’t have here. We can buy that here, but it doesn’t taste the same as making it yourself, and the milk products go bad in this kind of hot weather without refrigeration.”

I asked Aya what else is different about her life in Zaatari compared to life in Syria. “My hands are getting damaged from washing clothes by hands. I used to read. I miss going to my aunt’s house. I miss having privacy; here are no doors to close,” she answered.

“In Syria we stayed up to late hours visiting with family and friends. Here you have to go to bed early to wake up early to get water before it runs out,” she added.

Grateful for water

Aya has a twice-daily five-minute walk to their neighborhood water supply and a ten-minute walk back to their tent, including two breaks with the two heavy jugs. Her uncle, Abu Abdu, chimed in, “Her arms are longer from carrying the water!”

In an informational camp meeting, Aya learned about the water scarcity in Jordan, and thus understands the limitation in the camp. She pointed out to me that a few months ago, after Mercy Corps’ first pump station became active, she noticed that, while still limited, water became more available.

Mercy Corps has been increasing our number of water-supply projects throughout Jordan, including Zaatari refugee camp. The projects are helping alleviate the extra demand for water that the influx of over 500,000 refugees has created in the country that was only six million prior to the Syrian conflict.

We have built two wells in Zaatari camp and are just finishing up the second pump station to ensure the availability of water to the more than 120,000 residents of the camp. We’ve begun the same work in the new camp at Azraq, slated to open this month.

Moments of peace are not free of sadness

While the realities of life in the camp can be harsh, Aya tries to focus on what she loves. “Sometimes I play with the children in the playground in the morning or when it cools down in the evening. That makes me happy,” the aspiring school teacher told me.

But even these moments can be tainted. Aya worries about the wellbeing of the young people she will teach one day: “The Syrian army and the FSA are teaching kids to fight and like weapons.”

Q+A: How we're helping children and young adults heal from trauma

And simple moments of peace are never entirely free of sadness. “At sunset we used to sit outside and relax. We still do this, sit in front of our tent at sunset, but it’s not the same,” she said.

Still, Aya and her family stay connected to their home by holding on to their traditions. It is simply a part of their nature, even in the limitations of the camp. As Nahla, Aya’s mother said, “We are related to the past and to our traditions. Who forgets his past has no trunk.”

How you can help

  • Learn more about how we're protecting Syria's children. Share Aya's story and others to raise awareness and support for a generation that needs our help to recover.

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