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When 'home' is a desert refugee camp
05:22 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

CNN's Christiane Amanpour visited refugee camps in Syria with her son Darius, 16

The pair met teenagers Darius's age who have seen horrors of war at first hand

Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan CNN  — 

The news from Syria is terrifying: The war hasn’t ended, despite Russia’s decisive intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and the fall of Aleppo at the end of last year.

Refugees are still fleeing, in search of a safe haven, wherever they can.

And the West is still giving them the cold shoulder.

This is especially true of the United States, where the Trump administration is preparing a revised executive order that blocks people from seven Muslim nations entering the country. The original version banned all Syrian refugees from coming to America, indefinitely.

These people are among the most vulnerable in the world today. They are escaping ISIS, Bashar Assad’s barrel bombs, and Russian air strikes.

So when the UN Refugee Agency proposed a visit to report from the refugee camps in Jordan, I jumped at it – and decided to bring my teenage son Darius along.

We went to talk to families trying to seek asylum in the US, and Darius – curious and caring – was keen to see how teenagers his own age are surviving the dark days of war, and life as refugees.

Teen refugee’s big dreams

Together, we met Mohammed. Like Darius, he is 16, but how different his life is to my son’s own.

Mohammed told him how terrifying it was back in Syria, of the bombing that had disrupted his school life, and of the horror of seeing his father shot to death in front of him.

Eventually, he told Darius, the family decided it was too dangerous to stay in their homeland. Now they live in a refugee camp, and his mother and sisters rely on him to be the man of the house.

Mohammed showed Darius the chores he has to do every day – back breaking work like going several times a day to fill 20-liter canisters of water and carry them home.

Children sit in a classroom at the UN-run school in Za'atari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

A pupil at the camp school, set up by the UN, Mohammed has learned English since fleeing Syria, and he has big dreams: of education, university, and a good career.

I asked Mohammed what it’s like to be a 16-year-old boy in this situation? Speaking English, he told us: “The price of success is hard work. It determines whether we win or lose.”

When Darius asked him who had taught him that, Mohammed replied simply, “life.”

For my son to see teenagers just like him in this desert camp in the middle of nowhere, deprived of so much and yet so full of hope, was a profound and moving experience.

‘Extreme vetting’ to move on

Another day, we visited a Syrian refugee family that had just managed to get papers for the US. It had taken them more than a year of vetting.

They were among the lucky few – perhaps even the last – to travel there, because of the Trump administration’s ban on Syrian refugees.

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The Syrians hoping to find refuge in America
05:34 - Source: CNN

The UNHCR’s Paul Stromberg says American vetting is about as extreme as it gets: “It involves many different agencies in the US, security databases, several face-to-face interviews, over a period which can last two years, biometric verification, at different stages of the process.”

“It’s basically the hardest way to get to the US if you’re Syrian,” Stromberg says, adding that there has never been a security issue with any of their cases.

And despite what many Westerners might think, globally fewer than 1% of refugees are resettled. That’s tiny. Especially when you consider that 10% of Jordan’s population is made up of refugees.

Stromberg told us Jordan is “overwhelmed” by this burden. “If you compare that to the US population, that would be well over 30 million people they’re hosting.”

“Jordan has done the best they can, it’s taken very courageous decisions,” he says. “It’s allowed access to legal employment, it’s trying to get all Syrians into school, which is crucial, to make sure that we’re not losing that much more human capital, an entire generation as the war goes on and on. But it is difficult.”

Children yearning for education

We also met young girls who have been married off, partly so their poverty-stricken families have one less mouth to feed, and partly because their families believe a married girl is safer than a single one.

There’s been a dramatic rise in child marriage since the Syrian war broke out, but now there is a similar dramatic rise in early divorce, as many of these girls refuse to stay in unhappy, often abusive relationships with (usually) much older men.

Saving Syrian refugees from early marriage
04:54 - Source: CNN

These are teenagers, girls my son’s age. Their stories are amazing, full of resilience and hope and determination despite the incredible hardship of losing everything — and a determination to end this cycle of victimhood and reach for a good future.

As we visited Za’atari and Azraq camps, Darius met kids his own age who yearn for the kind of education and opportunities he is lucky enough to enjoy.

Here, boys and girls go to school for three to four hours a day in separate shifts. They don’t have the kind of regular access to entertainment our kids do.

Syrian children play at the Za'atari refugee camp near the Jordanian capital, Amman.

At Azraq, electricity has only recently been installed, so some residents can watch TV, but the internet is restricted to just a few community centers in the camps – this is not the smartphone-addicted generation we’re so familiar with.

Darius was amazed to see how Mohammed and the others he met manage to make the best of what they have, and are even excited about all that they learn here at the camps in Jordan.

For them, this place is their stepping stone to making it in the world.

And as for Darius, what he’s experienced first-hand here will no doubt shape his future too.

It has given him early exposure to the consequences of war, to the deep humanity of those caught up in it, and to some of the greatest challenges of our times – like how to help the 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes around the world.