Tara Abraham is the Executive Director of Glamour Magazine’s The Girl Project, which promotes education for girls around the world who are not in school due to war, poverty, child marriage, and gender-based violence. Ms. Abraham traveled to Jordan in January 2018, to the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps, as a part of the UNICEF USA delegation. I recently had the chance to listen to her speak when she gave a talk through Harvard’s Alumni Global Women’s Empowerment group called, “Reflections on the Syrian Refugee Crisis.” It’s estimated that 1.4 million refugees have fled to Jordan since the Syrian war began. Ms. Abraham interviewed refugee girls at the camps about their daily lives, how they were affected by leaving Syria, and what educational opportunities were available to them.
Za’atari Camp was the first refugee camp to be founded in Jordan. The number of buildings there can seem endless, for they stretch to the horizon as far as you can see. It is home to almost 80,000 people and is considered Jordan’s fourth largest city. However, Za’atari was not planned—as people leaving Syria crossed the border into Jordan, they stopped almost as soon as they entered safe territory. Za’atari camp sprang up where they stopped, just twelve miles from the border. Shelters were hastily built in clusters without any kind of planned infrastructure to support the community. Because of this, the camp faces logistical challenges when it comes to things like security and delivering water to the people who live there.
Due to its close proximity to Syria, Ms. Abraham said the sounds of ammunition and explosions are audible within the camp; even though the refugees had escaped from the war, the sounds of battle still followed them. Along with the trauma of having left their homes in Syria, the people in the camp face practical challenges as well. For example, they only receive twenty-eight dollars per week for food, which is not nearly enough. Also, there are extremely few formal job opportunities for refugees in Jordan.
Despite all of this, Ms. Abraham explained the resourcefulness and resilience of the community. To make ends meet, some refugees travel to Amman, a city in Jordan, to buy goods that they can then resell at a profit to others in the camp. Also, because Za’atari grew organically, Ms. Abraham said it felt more like ‘life’ than other camps she visited, which were planned. In Za’atari, people plant vegetable gardens between the jumble of shelters—life springs up here and there. There’s even a main market street, complete with barber shops and food carts, nicknamed the Champs-Elysees, after the famous street in Paris, France.
According to statistics, families can spend an average of up to 10-18 years in the camp. In other words, an entire generation can grow up within the camp. For example, while Ms. Abraham was there, she met refugee children who were as old as 5 or 6 who had been born at Za’atari and knew no other life besides it. She described seeing girls and boys playing on the side of the road, just running around ‘being kids.’ It struck her as strangely carefree given the circumstances. UNICEF has set up Makani (“my space”) centers to provide some educational and recreational outlets for young girls and boys. At the centers, kids do things like compete in soccer games, paint, and play with building blocks.
After a few days of being in the camp, Ms. Abraham noticed something unusual. She began to realize that she rarely saw any adolescent girls outside of their houses. As she explained it, once girls hit puberty, they began to be more exposed to the companionship of men and all of the real and perceived risks that come with that. The parents, seeing their daughters’ vulnerability, restrict the girls’ movements to keep them safe and protect their virtue. Parents don’t want older girls to travel around the camp alone or even in small groups. Often, the older girls only leave the house with their mother or another older family member to go grocery shopping or visit people in their homes. The rest of the time, the girls are doing ‘women’s work’: cooking, cleaning, collecting water and caring for younger siblings, which is all incredibly important work for the family. However, Ms. Abraham couldn't shake the feeling that as the girls retreated inside their homes, which she described as ‘aluminum boxes,’ they disappeared from other parts of their lives, including school.
Luckily, the coordinators that work in the Makani Center are often young refugees themselves and can provide some support for the girls because they understand what they have to go through every day. But sometimes they meet resistance from the families, who worry about sending the girls alone to the Center, so the coordinators do everything they can to build trust with the families. For example, if the families are worried about their daughters walking alone to the center, they arrange transportation for the girls. Ms. Abraham spoke to two coordinators at the center, both young and married, who described their efforts to develop a pathway for the girls to keep attending school, and also help give them guidance and emotional support for life skills. They like to encourage openness in topics like boys, relationships, or wearing a bra for the first time. The girls look up to the coordinators as role models who aren’t a mother or sister, but rather a trusted mentor outside of the family who can give advice. The girls need extra support when they reach adolescence, because life is harder and more complicated at that point—they are entering the age when they might have to marry.
According to statistics, many Syrian girls as young as twelve are discontinuing their education and getting married to much older men. Parents struggling to feed their families sometimes choose to marry their young daughters to other households to ensure economic security. UNICEF staff told Ms. Abraham that just a few years ago 8% of children under the age of 18 were married. Today, that number has risen to 38%. It may appear to an outside viewer that these families must not care about their daughters. Ms. Abraham stressed that this was far from the truth—families are desperate to figure out a way to help their daughters survive and have domestic security. The parents are in what Ms. Abraham described as “an impossible position,” having no good options from which to choose. When daughters are presented with an opportunity to marry, families sometimes feel that the girls must accept the proposal since it’s uncertain whether there will be similar opportunities later to ensure their safe economic future. Despite the challenges that families face, Ms. Abraham saw hope. For example, while some families’ older daughters are married off at a young age, the parents hope that with more time and economic stability their younger daughters can marry later, at 19 or 20, and continue their education until then.
Thanks to Tara Abraham’s talk, I learned so much more about how much refugees truly struggle and what they must go through in their day-to-day lives. I was struck by Ms. Abraham’s passionate, well-informed, and determined voice. She is truly an inspiring role model!