International Day of the Girl: What's in the day of a refugee girl?

September 30, 2015

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  • Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Across the globe, girls’ lives are very much the same — they’re telling secrets, laughing with friends, cleaning their rooms, helping with dinner, doing their homework.

When conflict displaces families — internally in their home country or as refugees in other countries — many of these things don’t change. Girls everywhere, regardless of their circumstances, want the same things: to play, learn and dream.

Below, meet a few of the young girls living as refugees or displaced persons in places where ongoing violence is driving families from their homes every day. Find out how they spend their time, and learn how we’re helping them find happy, healthy lives despite the uncertainty they’re up against.

Getting ready for the day

Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Most mornings Duha (left) and A’laa (right) wash up just outside their family’s tent using a bucket of water. The communal camp bathroom is a far distance — and the wait is long — so they only go there twice a week to bathe.

The sisters fled the war in Syria with the rest of their family when their neighborhood was bombed. They expected to stay in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan for only one month, but they’ve now been there for more than two years.

Mercy Corps builds wells in the camp so families like theirs have access to the water they need for cooking, cleaning and bathing — around six times every day a member of the girls’ family walks to the tap to collect water for the day’s activities.

Making breakfast

Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

Aya, 17, helps her mother prepare breakfast every morning.

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

Mercy Corps provides water and distributes essential supplies to help families like Aya's meet their basic needs. But as refugees living in a foreign country, it's difficult for them to maintain all their Syrian customs.

“Breakfast is different here than in Syria,” Aya explains. “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.”

Still, Aya is focused on holding on to some of her family’s traditions from home — the cooking and preparation of food is one of them.

Going to school

Photos: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

For the first 10 months after arriving in Zaatari from Syria, 8-year-old Hayam wasn’t able to attend the camp’s school. Her muscular dystrophy prevented her from making the quarter-mile walk.

But Mercy Corps provided Hayam with a wheelchair and an escort to get her safely to and from class each day, and she’s since restarted her education. She even participates in extra-curricular activities like art, handicrafts and knitting, which helps her make friends and feel less marginalized because of her disability.

“Her father and I are extremely happy,” says Hayam’s mother. “She has what she was looking for, which was to go to school, read and write. Now every day when she comes home from school she starts writing her homework in her notebook alongside her siblings. Sometimes she even sleeps with her notebook. She loves homework.”

Drawing and painting

Photos: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

The conflict in Syria drove 14-year-old Reem and her family from their home in Daraa to a caravan in Zaatari in August 2012.

After being uprooted from her once-comfortable life, Reem struggles with the extreme weather and lack of water she’s now faced with as a refugee in Jordan. But spending time at Mercy Corps’ arts-and-crafts caravan lifts her up.

Mercy Corps’ child-friendly spaces host activities like crafts, painting, journaling and games to help refugee children relax, continue their development and cope with the trauma they’ve experienced. Above, Reem and her friends Baraa’a, 14, and Malik, 12, display the artwork they completed in the arts-and-crafts area.

Playing with friends

Photos: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Iyat, 11 and her friend Amani play in the Mercy Corps playground in Zaatari every single day.

Iyat arrived at the refugee camp with her family in August 2012 after bombing near their home in Daraa, Syria forced them to flee to Jordan for safety. They were smuggled through dangerous areas at night and had to walk for several hours to reach the border.

Even though her life has been disrupted by war, Iyat is still just a young girl. The playground and other child-friendly spaces Mercy Corps has built in the camp give her and other young refugees safe places to play, make friends and continue being kids.

Caring for siblings

Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

As the eldest of her siblings, 13-year-old Nour has many responsibilities, including taking care of her young brother, Basheer, and her three other siblings.

“Feeding Basheer is one of my many full-time jobs,” Nour says. “He’s always hungry!”

After she’s eaten her own breakfast and finished with her morning chores, she often takes Basheer and her other siblings to the Mercy Corps playground near her family’s tent in Zaatari.

Her life in the camp is much more difficult than the life she knew in Damascus, Syria. Every day she gets up early — and waits in line — to buy bread and collect water. Then she helps her mother cook and clean. But Nour enjoys her time at the playground — it offers her a brief reprieve from the hard work of being a refugee.

MORE PHOTOS: Life as a refugee: Spend the day with Nour ▸

Doing chores

Photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Life in the Bulengo displacement camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is fraught with challenges and, as the eldest daughter in her family, 16-year-old Esther has a lot on her plate. She can’t afford to attend school so she spends most of her time doing chores — sweeping, collecting water, cooking, washing dishes — to help maintain her family’s tent.

“In the morning, I just clean up the house. I take some grass and clean the yard. I wash the children, and then go to church for some activities,” she says.

Mercy Corps provides water and hygiene services to several displacement sites in DRC, including Bulengo, where Esther lives. This ensures families like hers have access to the water and sanitation they need to stay clean and healthy until they can go home again.

Spending time with family

Photos: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

On any given day, you might find 9-year-old Yasmeen and her siblings dancing or playing games outside their simple, two-room home in Jordan, lovingly encouraged by their mother, Mariam.

When Mariam and her husband, Asha, decided they had to flee Syria, they were determined to keep their large family together. So, Mariam, Asha and their nine children, including Yasmeen, all made the journey across the border, eventually arriving safely in a Jordanian host community where they received basic supplies like mattresses, blankets and cooking utensils from Mercy Corps.

Now, even though they’re refugees, Mariam is dedicated to building a happy, secure life for Yasmeen and her siblings. And she takes every opportunity she can to promote play, learning and comfort.

“We eat together, sleep together with no problems,” Mariam explains. “Sometimes small things happen, but we overcome the issues. What my family needs is communication in order to know what each other needs. We have strength in communication.”

READ MORE: Mothers coping with war: ‘I embrace them and tell them not to fear’ ▸

Dreaming of the future

Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Conflict and displacement curbs lives, livelihoods and education — but not aspirations.

Nyabiey, 10, currently lives in a displacement site in Juba; she is one of more than 1.6 million people internally displaced because of protracted civil war in South Sudan.

“I lost my school and friends,” she says. “I miss school very much. In the camp the school is in a tent and too crowded and I can’t learn anything.”

Even yet, she hasn’t stopped dreaming.

“I want to be a teacher someday. I want to teach other children that fighting is wrong and we must work together to build a good country,” she adds.

We’ve built temporary learning spaces and trained teachers to help displaced girls like Nyabiey continue their education in camps and displacement communities, so even during this time of crisis they can hold tight to their hopes for future.

LEARN MORE: Back to School: How we get kids to class during conflict ▸

How you can help

  • Your support will ensure this generation of girls is not lost to war. Help us reach young people with the support and protection they need to survive crises and recover for the future. Donate today ▸

  • Tell your friends. Share this story and spread the word about girls who need our help to work toward a better future.
  • Start a campaign. You can turn knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page and asking your friends and family to contribute to our efforts to help young people displaced by war.
  • Stay informed. Read more stories about our work and those we are helping on our displaced people page. You can also learn more about our focus on protecting Syria’s children.