The suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria last week has taken the ongoing crisis to a new level. The conflict has already seen one million Syrian children become refugees, with the total number of refugees now close to two million. Such figures are overwhelming, and I believe it is important to remember that these millions of refugees are real people, each with their own story to share.
When I write about refugees it is often to highlight the challenges that refugee women and children face. This in part reflects the fact they make up 80 percent of the refugee population, and are often the most vulnerable in conflict situations.
But in saying this, there is no less concern for the millions of men who alone or together with their families are also forced from their homes, often into dangerous and uncertain futures.
On my recent mission to Jordan I met and interviewed Syrian refugees, including a number of men – fathers, husbands and sons – about their experiences as refugees.
I found young dad, Mohamad, surrounded by young kids playing soccer on a rocky field. He and his wife, Suzanne, and young family had arrived in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan almost 12 months before fleeing the besieged city of Dara in southern Syria.
At home in his village while his wife taught at the local school he ran the local soccer competition. His team Al Majed had won several premierships, and although he joked his glory days as a forward were behind him he said he now really enjoyed coaching.
Playing soccer is an important social outlet for refugee children at Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan.
In Zaatari Refugee Camp soccer is one of the few outlets for the thousands of children who live there, and Mohamad was using his coaching skills to help train and coach some of the budding soccer stars who careered around us.
As his young son peered shyly at me from the safety of his father’s shoulder, Mohamad described life in the camp. Yes, it was safe and he was thankful for that – but there was little to occupy the many young men in the camp or the children.
He said many of the children were traumatised by their experiences living for many months in war zones. Some were very angry, others totally withdrawn. He saw soccer as one way to help release the stress and fears these kids held.
I asked him what he most about his life back in Syria. His reply surprised me: “Water. In my village we have the purest water direct from underground springs. Here the water is bitter, it is the water of the desert.”
I left him as I had found him. Chasing after the soccer ball with kids hanging off his arms and back.
Back in Amman, UNHCR took me to meet Shadic, a Syrian refugee and a father of five – one of 450,000 urban refugees seeking out a living in a hidden corner of their city.
For Shadic, life now is a mixed blessing. Safe for the first time in months from unending attacks on his home village in Homs, he is grateful that he and his young family have made it out alive.
Shadic and his family live as urban refugees in Amman, the capital of Jordan.
But life here is also tough. Shadic’s badly run down rented flat is a far cry from the comfortable home he built with his own hands in his native Homs. Although a skilled butcher by trade, paid work for refugees is difficult to find, and his wife and children continue to suffer the post traumatic effects of having been shot at and bombarded nearly every day of their last two years in their village.
He told me he constantly worries what future his children will have. As he does so he gently cradles his son Ahmed, a sweet smiling child with an intellectual disability. To see the care this tough Dad – who survived arrest by the military twice – takes in holding his son is really moving.
Shadic tells me that life back in Homs before the war was good. He enjoyed his work and got on well with his fellow workers and bosses although they belonged to the ruling tribe.
“Before the war we all got on,” he told me. “There was no difference – people didn’t care who was Sunni, Alawite or Shia. We visited each other homes. Our children played together.”
Once the conflict started everything changed.
The first time Shadic was arrested while walking to work he was held for 12 days – the second time for 18 days. When he was first arrested his wife Jasmine said she was in shock. “One of my neighbours husbands was also kidnapped. His body was dumped at her front door by the military, another neighbour came back without his teeth.”
Jasmine looked at her hands, “when your man is arrested you assume he will not come back.”
Every day the family says they were in danger of being killed by bombs or sniper shots. Jasmine said they learnt that the most dangerous time was just before an attack. “Everything would go quiet – even the birds would stop singing, like the calm before a storm. At first the children would think it was safe and run out to play. But we soon learnt that this was the time to hide.”
When he was released the family knew they had to escape and Jasmine and Shadic fled their home knowing they might never return. People smugglers took them in a truck by night and then dropped them at a remote border point. I asked them how much they had to pay and Shadic said in the end they paid nothing as the smugglers felt sorry for the children.
The family fled into Jordan at night stopping every 10 metres to avoid the spotlights from helicopters hovering overhead. At one point Jasmine, carrying her newborn, panicked when she dropped the baby’s milk bottle. She had to leave it. Shadic commented, “you have to make a decision – it’s either your belongings or your kids.”
The crossing took over three hours with Shadic carrying two of his children on his back.
Eventually they made their way to Amman and this small flat we now sat in together – me sipping sweet mint tea made especially for their visitor.
Shadic had tried working as a butcher but wasn't paid properly. He said he wanted to work but in the meantime the family’s only source of income was from an allowance UNHCR provided to cover the rent and buy food.
What of the future? Shadic said it was hard to think beyond their needs now. But at least they were safe. The children were going to school and his son Ahmed had been assessed for special help and would start school soon. And for the first time Shadic smiled.
To learn more about how Australia for UNHCR is helping Syrian refugees, please visit: www.unrefugees.org.au/syria