08.23.134:45 AM ET

The Millionth Child

On Friday, the number of Syrian child refugees hit 1 million. With hundreds of thousands out of school, traumatized by violence, and seeing little hope of a quick return home, what will happen to Syria’s Lost Generation?

Andrew Harper still thinks of the children he’s helped across the dusty border between Syria and Jordan. He fondly remembers a three-year-old boy in light-up sneakers fleeing to a less visible spot as gunfire erupted over their heads. “For god’s sake, your mother chose those shoes for you to move across the border?” Harper thought, picking him up.

There was also a teenage girl with a paralyzed foot on crutches who walked at least 4.5 miles over the border, carrying all her possessions on her neck; the eight-year-old who was in the same pajamas she’d been wearing since her house was destroyed a week earlier; and the smiling toddler who’d been shot in the back and had a broken spine. “What is her life going to be in the future?” wonders Harper, the United Nations' Refugee Agency's representative in Jordan. “A girl has a tough time in the Middle East as is, but a girl who’s paralyzed as a refugee...” He trails off.

Early Friday morning, what’s now being called Syria’s “Lost Generation,” hit an inconceivable milestone: one million Syrian child refugees, according to a joint report by UNICEF and the UNHCR. Scattered throughout neighboring countries—the majority in Jordan and Lebanon, but hundreds of thousands in Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq—nearly 2 million refugees have settled into formal and informal camps; more than half of them are children. Of those, nearly 75 percent are 10 or under; only around 12 percent have been able to continue their education; and an untold number have been permanently impacted by displacement and violence. Organizations like UNHCR, UNICEF, and Save the Children, are scrambling to erect and sustain a foundation of services suitable for the diaspora of traumatized, out-of-school kids.

For 17-year-old Khaled (whose name has been changed), fleeing Syria was the only way to avoid compulsory military service for men once they turn 18. He previously dreamt of working in the government, a goal now unfathomable. “I do not want to be involved in massacring my people,” he told The Daily Beast in an interview translated by the UNHCR. “I would never work for them.”

To keep boys like Khaled in the country, the government imposed new travel restrictions on military-aged men, banning them from leaving last year. So, in February, as the prospect of army service neared, Khaled’s family paid a bus driver the equivalent of $440 to smuggle him out of Homs under a pile of luggage and into Jordan. He walked with a group of 2,000 other refugees, and later made his way from the crowded Zaatari refugee camp to a friend’s house in Amman.

In Jordan’s capital city, Khaled is out of work and out of school. Each month, after rent, he has only the equivalent of $14 left of the small stipend given to him by UNHCR. It’s not enough to finish his schooling, which he was nearly done with in Syria, because he’s unable to pay for school supplies. He tried practicing as a tailor, his father’s profession, but was arrested for working illegally and made to sign a paper agreeing he wouldn’t seek employment again.


Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty; Hadi Mizban/AP; Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty; Mandel Ngan, Pool/AP

“I do not see any future for me, unless I can get out to another country where I can start a new life,” he says. “There is no place for me here in Jordan, and no possibility to go back to Syria.”

Pushed from Syria’s borders, refugees continue to flood into neighboring countries at a rate of one person every 14 seconds. In Jordan, there are more than 300,000 children registered as refugees, and a little less than half of them are toddlers. Many have fled with mothers and siblings, as fathers and older brothers were either victims of the war or have stayed behind to fight. And 3,500 more kids have arrived unaccompanied or without parents.

Harper, who’s been working in Middle Eastern refugee operations for two decades, says the crisis has reached proportions that dwarf past refugee situations. “Almost every child we’ve come across has seen or is aware of horrific incident—either someone killed or been bombed. We haven’t seen that before,” he says. “The trauma of this crisis on the children is much more direct; it’s people not fleeing because of generalized violence.”

Seven miles from the Syrian border, Jordan’s Zaatari camp has morphed into the country’s fourth-largest city and the second-largest refugee camp in the world. When it reluctantly opened for 600 refugees on July 29, 2012, there were 142,000 Syrians seeking refuge. Soon, the figure was growing by 2,000 people daily.

They were overrun, as thousands flooded in under the cover of night. “We were trying to wake up the international community: this is not just a small refugee situation, this is a crisis,” Harper remembers. A year later, 120,000 refugees call Zaatari home, but it was initially only supposed to hold half that. So far, 330,000 have passed through the camp.

Each day, Harper says, 50 to 60 Syrian babies are born in Jordan. Right over the border, desperate Syrian mothers are having caesarean sections to expedite delivery, and then making the journey to safety the next day. Doctors attest that stress and fear are causing many to give birth prematurely or miscarry.

Back in Syria, before the war, 90 percent of children were enrolled in school. Now, according to a January UN report, 80 percent of refugee children living in Lebanon are out of school. In the refugee-heavy Kurdish region of Iraq, 90 percent stay home. And in Jordan, only a third of refugee children go to class. So far, Save the Children estimates the war has affected the education of 2.5 million youth.

In the early stages of the conflict, Harper says, relief agencies found families were hesitant to enroll their children in school, certain they would return to Syria soon. Slowly, that reluctance has dissolved.

“As time goes on, people are understanding we’re going to be here a long time and there’s been a massive increase in refugees registering [as refugees],” Harper says. But many, having been out of school for years, have trouble adjusting or find being put into younger classes is too embarrassing, and simply drop out. “We’ve got to find ways to encourage them to go back to school, we’ve got to somehow save this generation that will otherwise be left sitting in a refugee camp,” Harper says.

Conditions in Zaatari are far from ideal, but Harper says the camp is now transitioned from emergency response, to building long-term sustainability. Now, there are three schools in the camp, which, he says, are “as good as you can expect them to be.” According to a Brookings Institute report last month, there are only 6,000 places in schools for the 50,000 school-age children at Zaatari. But for those arriving, the classroom is an anchor of normalcy. “They could be in a tent, receiving food rations, in another country, put in a school structure all of a sudden they’re back in something they can relate to,” he says.

For more than 70 percent of Jordan’s refugees who are living outside camps, life is particularly hard. Education is costly as school fees, transportation, and food add up. For young boys, this dynamic creates incentives to work rather than learn, making underage labor the largest challenge facing child-aid workers outside the refugee camps, according to Huda Al-Shabsogh, a Jordanian field officer with UNHCR, who deals with urban refugees. Even if there’s an older male in the family, it’s often easier for the younger boys to find menial jobs. An April report by CARE International found 50 percent of 13-to 17-year-old boys were working to supplement the family’s income.

Many young girls outside the camps are kept out of school by parents who fear for their safety. Based in Amman, Al-Shabsogh is deployed across the country for follow-ups for the child protection unit. Refugees are provided with information about the unit as well as a hotline to call for help upon arrival. Once, the team got a call from a 16-year-old girl from Homs married off to an older Jordanian man. He was doing drugs, but when UNHCR intervened, the girl decided to stay in the marriage. In many communities with an influx of Syrian refugees, Al-Shabsogh says, local men are taking advantage of the comparative acceptance with which child marriage is viewed in Syria to take very young brides.

Families of Syrian girls often find foreign schools a scary prospect, and opt to keep them home instead. Al-Shabsogh remembers a recent case of a disabled grandmother who arrived in Jordan with four girls, ages 7 to 13. With their parents killed or missing, she was charged with their caretaking and refused to let them out of her sight. UNHCR’s child task force arranged for the neighbors to help convince her to send them to class.

A mother to three children herself, Al-Shabsogh pretends the kids she deals with are her own. “Can you imagine your family saying, ‘No I don’t want to go to school’?” she asks. “You put this thing into mind, and words come from your mouth easily.” When asked if she finds herself growing numb to the hardships, she quickly responds. “No, it’s always shocking,” she says. “It’s always shocking,” she repeats two more times.

Dr. Katherine Porterfield is a senior clinical psychologist at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. In her 14 years at the program treating refugees fleeing war and survivors of trauma, she says it’s impossible to understate the impact of a war on a young psyche.

“[For] kids coming out of a war zone, is it’s not just blatant trauma they may have witnessed or experienced, it’s the cascade of disruptions they then experience as their community collapses,” says Porterfield, listing some: loss of home, food instability, family break-up, lack of education and health care.

In a fall academic study conducted in a refugee camp in southeast Turkey, 75 percent of children said someone close to them had been killed in the conflict, and 45 percent of boys and girls scored above the clinical cutoff line for a PTSD diagnosis—which means it’s likely that anger issues, violence, and depression can bubble up now or in the future.

“The whole generation that’s impacted by war and traumatized by violence is something Syria will pay for many years,” High Commissioner António Guterres told ABC’s Martha Raddatz in early July.

Aid organizations offer psychiatric care for kids both in and outside the camps, but, as Harper says, “There are so many [refugees], the needs completely outweigh the resources to treat them.” UNICEF and UNHCR estimate 167,000 children have received mental health treatment.

“In a place like Syria’s civil conflict, children are the ones who become vulnerable to what’s around them because they can’t protect themselves...it sets up a generation who has just seen their world implode and has lost that basic sense of security,” Porterfield says.

Meanwhile, Syria’s neighbors are buckling under the added pressure of 1.9 million refugees. In Lebanon, host to the largest number of refugees, 20 percent of the population is now comprised of Syrians. There are no official refugee camps in the country, so the displaced scatter throughout cities and villages. Their only assistance comes in the form of a monthly $30 ration for groceries. The UNHCR estimates the number of Syrian children in the public school system will soon be equal to the number of Lebanese.

In Jordan and elsewhere, schools are strained to a breaking point. Some schools have created a morning shift and night shift, with many teachers working both. Classrooms are cramped with 50 or 60 kids, who share books between three of them. Iraq and Turkey are proving harder for Syrian children seeking education, since the culture and, in Turkey, the language, are different.

Despite the scorched earth they’d be returning to, UNHCR representatives report most Syrian refugees are desperate to go home. “They say: We want to go back to our country. This is the first word they say to us,” Al-Shabsogh says.

When the fighting is done and the border reopens, whenever that may be, thousands of bombed-out schools (so far, at least a fifth have been destroyed and a shortage of teachers await the returning Syrians, whom Harper expects will set out for home within 24 hours of hearing the news that it’s safe to return. “Having children go back to communities is important, but not in the sense of education or mental health,” he says.

Khaled, a 17-year-old refugee from Syria, shares a one-bedroom apartment in Amman, Jordan. (Reem Alsalem/UNHCR)

But memories from years of wartime aren’t easily erased. As a psychologist, Porterfield says the main fear she hears from kids is that the fighting will return. “They could be thousands of miles from that war zone, thousands of miles from where they watched someone be killed, and they’ll still say, ‘I’m afraid it’s going to happen again, I’m afraid bombs will come here, I’m afraid soldiers are going to kill me.’”

For those attending to children on the ground, helping ease the lasting effects of war is “a daunting responsibility.” On Friday’s news release, UNICEF Director Anthony Lake put pressure on the conflict’s onlookers. “We must all share the shame…the global community has failed in its responsibility to this [millionth] child.”

With a figure so mind-bogglingly large, Harper wonders how to get people to care. “The challenge is to turn the figure into people.” Perhaps, he thinks, Americans would take note if the figure was broken down into football-stadium quantities. “When does the international community say enough is enough? Do we wait for two million children?”