Here are some questions with no right answers: Should I accept a cup of tea from a mother with ten children and no income in a refugee camp? If I make friends with this family, is it exploitation when I ask to use photos of the children in fundraising materials? Am I allowed to complain about the heat and the dust during the day, when each night thousands of children fear that the wind will blow their tent away? How do I explain to someone who’s never been there what a refugee camp is like?
The last question is important for two reasons. Firstly, I work in communications for aid agencies, so I need to be able to explain this to donors and the public for, ultimately, fundraising purposes. Secondly, once each contract is over and I’m back home in Australia, I need to find a way to talk about what I’ve seen with friends and family.
That’s not quite true, though. I don’t need to draw a full picture for the public; only the heartbreaking and heart-warming snapshots that make them want to give money. When I get home, my friends and family have read the same stories and seen the same photos that I produced for the public, so I don’t need to communicate anything more to them; I can talk about boys, bars and politics instead. However, when I returned to Melbourne recently after four months working for a child-focused organisation at Domiz refugee camp for Syrians in northern Iraq (yep, things are so bad in Syria, people are fleeing to Iraq), I became frustrated by friends who assumed it was all harrowing, awful and depressing. But when I explained the positives – developing communities, thriving small businesses, and lively children playing with makeshift toys – people replied with, ‘Oh, so it’s just like a normal town?’ and ‘Kids are the same everywhere, aren’t they?’ I realised I’d missed the mark. It’s not a normal town at all. And kids who’ve seen war aren’t the same anymore.
The situation for children was at the centre of my work, and as far as refugee camps go, things weren’t so bad for kids at Domiz. There were schools, and other activities for children, with staff trained in how to support them. The camp was essentially peaceful: there were medical facilities, vaccinations on arrival, a food voucher system. Most tents had their own water tanks, and even electricity. But there were inequalities too, partly because the camp was hugely overcrowded, no one had anticipated the numbers that would arrive.
One day, a recently arrived family called me over to tell me they had thirty people living in their tent. Their tent was in an ‘informal’ area of the camp, meaning a space not designed to be occupied, but the overcrowding meant people just packed in with makeshift shelters wherever they possibly could. Unlike other children in the camp who often rushed out to greet me, wanting attention, hugs, or asking me to take their photo, the kids in this barely habitable tent hung back, watching as the adults did the talking. The adults crowded round, anxiously telling me all the things they desperately needed – like food – and pointing out their disabled relatives with malformed hands and feet, who couldn’t walk. I was an aid worker, so people always saw me as someone who could help, no matter what it was they needed. But that day, like many others, there was nothing I could do. I knew the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the agency coordinating services at the camp – was already doing all they could to meet soaring needs. I couldn’t bring myself to admit how little could be done, though, or how long it might take, so I deflected and told them to talk to UNHCR, not me.
Even for kids in the best-case situations, life wasn’t easy. Another family I knew, with four young daughters, had been there a full year when I first met them last April. They had arrived just as the camp was being established. When I got there, the older daughters were in primary school, the family had converted their tent into a small brick house, and they often had friends and relatives from Syria staying with them while waiting for their own tents.
Despite how long they had been in the camp, Avin, the mother, said she still overheard her older daughters talking to each other about all the things they longed to do, when they ‘go home to Damascus…’ But Avin said her youngest daughter, aged two, had forgotten about Syria – all she remembered of life was in the refugee camp.
Avin, who ran a beauty salon at the camp (it was what she did in Syria, so she continued with it after she fled to Iraq), wanted to bring her children up well, and she said she hated seeing them run wild with other kids at the camp, playing in the dirt, learning to swear and talk back to her and her husband. They were becoming different people and she hardly recognised them now; she said she wished that one day she would have a house again so she could raise them properly.
While Avin’s daughters were in school at the camp, about 40 per cent of school age children weren’t, as yet there were not enough schools to accommodate them all, and classes only went up to Year 9. Sometimes other children at the camp approached me to tell me they wanted to go to school and all I could do was to tell them we were working to set up more classrooms.
A bright, personable, disabled 13-year-old boy I met studied alone at home, refusing to go outside, insisting it was because he had chosen not to make new friends at the camp. He had big plans for his future though. He would go to Europe where, he said, the doctors were clever – not like in Syria and Iraq – and could fix his legs so he could walk again. Once he was cured, he would join the air force.
‘I want to be with the American military because American people are valued, and if one person crashes on an island everyone will come to save them, not like for other countries,’ he explained to me.
As I listened to him talk, my heart sank. Neither he nor his father even knew the name of his condition, but I nodded and took notes, afraid to crush his fantasy.
For children living outside the camp, it was even harder to access local schools than camp ones, and only one in ten children were in school. The damage being done to their futures was obvious. A 16-year-old boy told me how he used to want to be a pilot, but now he worked in manual labour. He was surly and resentful of what had happened to his dreams. An 8-year-old girl said she had never been inside a classroom. A 12-year-old had forgotten how to read after a year of missed education, with her books left behind in Syria.
Over and over, parents would tell me their children were smart, that they deserved a proper education and a bright future, and I couldn’t help but think how frustrated and helpless my parents would have felt in their situation.
I tried to write an article for my organisation about how it wasn’t just seeing bombs and bullets that damaged the children, it was what they missed out on as refugees, when a short-term relocation became their new life – losing education, stability, and normal homes to live, learn and grow in. But complex stories about what life in a refugee camp means for a child aren’t as attention grabbing as tales of death and destruction in Syria.
Despite this, I tried to find a balance and still shied away from asking people much about what they had been through before they fled to Iraq. Why make people relive their personal horror stories when the atrocities happening in Syria were already well known and widely reported? But sometimes it came up anyway.
One day I took an official delegation with media and senior staff to meet some of the refugees, and a father told us how his children had seen dead bodies on the street in Damascus. When the children asked who had been killed, he said that he and his wife told them it was just a dream. Now in Iraq, he said they still tell their children that everything was fine back in Syria – all the bad memories were just dreams – and one day they will go home. I don’t know what his children believed though, because he had said this in front of them, and it was only as the interpreter translated his words to English that I realised what the children had overheard. After that I was even more cautious about asking parents – or letting them be asked – about violence in Syria.
On my last day at the camp, I visited a family I had gotten to know over my time in Iraq. Zanefa has ten children and a sick husband; they had fled to Iraq in late 2012 under gunfire. I took a Tasmanian devil puppet for the children, along with some baklava for the family. The oldest daughter offered me tea, which I drank while the younger kids played with my camera, taking photos of each other and me. Zanefa offered me sweets and biscuits, and I – acutely conscious of not wanting to deprive the children of their rare treats, but not wanting to reject such generous hospitality – ate one biscuit and one sweet. The youngest child, a 4-year-old girl, tried to hand me more, and when I refused, she put sweets into my handbag.
When I first met Zanefa and her family, they only had a tent, and in summer it felt like a sauna. Literally. Sweat would stream down my face when I sat inside. The day I went to say goodbye, they had finished a plywood extension and installed an air conditioner. Sheltering in a refugee camp was no longer a temporary measure for them. Like Avin, Zanefa knows her children will grow up there.
In the weeks after I left, 60,000 more refugees flooded into Iraq, the one-millionth child fled Syria, and around 1,000 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack in Damascus. This was already the largest humanitarian response in UN history.
And I was back home, trying once again to fit back into another life, sleeping in a friend’s spare room, drinking lattes in inner city Melbourne, hearing my government talk about how to stop refugees coming to Australia. I was still without answers to all the questions I started with; no closer to figuring out how to bridge the two worlds I moved between, and wondering if by finding new ways to tell the stories I had heard, I could make some sense of what the children I met had survived and would grow up with.