Only 12 days after the first case of Covid-19 was detected in Jordan, the authorities closed all the schools in the country. Shortly after, the Zaatari refugee camp was also locked down.
More than 76,000 Syrian refugees were literally locked in, with no possibility of leaving the camp. At the same time, a large number of teachers and humanitarian aid workers lost the opportunity to work in the camp.
So far, the virus has not spread to Zaatari, but the closure has greatly affected the children and many vulnerable families living there.
Worried about the children
“I’m worried about my children’s health and their future. Before, they could participate in school activities and move freely in and around the camp. Now, they are forced to stay indoors most of the time,” says Rehab, a mother of eight.
Rehab is originally from Daraa in Syria. Like many others in the camp, she and her family have been displaced several times. Now that the camp is closed, her husband can no longer work and make money. With the school closed as well, and teachers and aid workers unable to enter the camp, the children are hit particularly hard.
Only one mobile phone
“Many families are deeply concerned about their children. We are doing our best to keep in touch with the children and their parents, but it’s hard when families lack both stable internet access and mobile phones,” says Noor Elkhairy, educational adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
Five of Rehab’s children are participating in NRC’s educational programme, but with only one mobile phone in the family, they have to take turns.
“That’s the biggest challenge,” explains Rehab. “We have chosen to prioritise our oldest children because their lessons are the most demanding.”
Keeping the nightmares at bay
In addition to the difficulties in accessing distance learning, NRC’s education team is concerned about the possible mental health consequences of the pandemic for the 18,000 children in the camp. Many are suffering from the trauma of war and nightmares.
Rehab’s eldest daughter, Malak, was only seven years old when armed men attacked the family’s house and kidnapped her uncle. The images of her uncle being beaten and dragged from their house are burned in her memory. She never saw him again.
After years of stress and nightmares, she finally received help through the Better Learning Programme. This education programme, developed and run by NRC, provides psychosocial support to children who have experienced war and crisis.
“Our mobile phone has become our lifeline. It’s how we keep in touch with NRC, and how we keep the nightmares at bay,” Malak explains.
Helping her younger siblings
The 14-year-old helps her younger siblings deal with their psychological stress, which has only increased following the closure of the schools and the camp.
“The homework we do in Better Learning helps us a lot. Sometimes I feel like a second mother to my younger brothers and sisters. It’s important that I pass on to them what I learn so they can feel safer and less anxious,” says Malak.
Malak’s teacher, Sana, explains: “Malak was a very quiet girl when she started in my class, but eventually she opened up. Once, after the school day was over, she stayed after class and told me about her nightmares. She told me that she was having a hard time and that she needed help.”
Sana is a refugee herself, and from the same area as Malak. Now she works as a teacher at NRC’s school in the camp. She continues: “I have children myself and we have experienced the same things: the bombs, death and suffering. We are all marked by the horrors of war, and it’s not difficult to have empathy for all these children.”
Malak concludes: “I feel better now that the nightmares have stopped. The breathing exercises and physical exercises that I’ve learnt have given me my life back and new hope for the future.”
1 in 15: One in 15 people living in Jordan is a refugee.
18,000: The number of children living in Zaatari refugee camp.
23%: The proportion of Syrian refugee children in Jordan who don’t have internet access at home.
59,000: The number of children for whom NRC secured schooling in Jordan in 2019.