HuffPost UK Christmas Appeal

Barely a mile from Jordan’s border with Syria, inside a grubby 15sq metre tent, a flurry of hands dart into the air.

They belong to refugee children, all desperately keen to answer their teacher’s question: What comes after ‘today’ in English?

It is easier for them to talk about the future, because most are battling to forget the fire, fury and heartbreak of their past.

War in Syria has stretched over seven years, claimed almost half a million lives and displaced 5.5 million people – and the bloody conflict shows no sign of abating.

Inside Syria, six million children are in need of urgent humanitarian aid – 12 times more than in 2012 – and outside 2.5 million are living as refugees in neighbouring countries in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and here in Jordan.

This no-man’s land makeshift school has been ‘temporary’ for more than two years, and its UNICEF volunteers do all they can to reach this small pocket of Syria’s lost children clinging on to their dream of a better life.

HuffPost UK spoke to seven children whose lives are forever changed by the Syrian war and, here, they give their message to the world.

Reem and Raghd, 12

Though much of ISIS has been driven from Syria, an end to the civil war between Assad forces and rebel forces is not in sight.

At the time of writing, eastern Ghouta is under sustained bombardment in its rebel-held areas, 400,000 cannot access food and medical supplies are scarce. Children are thought to be witnessing daily death and destruction.

Identical twins Reem and Raghd, 12, left Ghouta, near the historic city of Damascus, with their parents in 2013 when violence intensified and chemical attacks began to plague the area.

The sweet pair wear the same coats and carry the same schoolbag. If they did not have one another to share the burden of the horrors they have witnessed, they may be very different people. Both find sanctuary in being creative.

Reem sketches Syrian children – perhaps friends she left behind – while Raghd finds solace in writing poetry.

Their aunt, a smart young woman who until two years ago was a second-year law student, teaches at the settlement’s school.

“When I was angry once and I wanted to take it out on something so I drew this,” says Reem, unfurling an A3-size sketch that melds Arab Spring flowers, peace doves, bullets and blood. “It helps because when you draw you remember something bad, you can forget the past and just focus on what you are drawing.”

Raghd believes writing helps her “get everything out of my heart”.

Their message is aimed at inspiring other young displaced Syrians, and it leads their grandmother to break down in tears.

“Syrian girls shouldn’t lose hope as we will achieve our goals no matter what,” says Raghd.

Reem adds: “I want to send a message to my country, to Syria, to all of the girls that they must keep trying until they reach their goals

“And that they continue to love each other and whatever their goal is they reach it and God willing we all return soon to Syria and reunite with all of our friends and those we love.”

Hussein, 12

Among the other keen-as-mustard students is 12-year-old Hussein. Before making the dash south to Jordan, his family almost starved on the outskirts of Homs, his father dodging bullets as he sold their cows for food.

The war forced Hussein and his six siblings from what was then a largely middle class country which boasted an 86.4% literacy rate.

On the verge of manhood and in radically different circumstances, Hussein still longs to be a pilot. The grim reality of refugee life means he misses school most days to work. He clears up cardboard and picks fruit so his family has enough money to eat.

“What do I feel? I don’t feel anything,” he tells me, back at the tent he calls home which becomes bitterly cold when nightfall reaches the desert. “I feel like I have lost my future. It’s better toward the end of the season, because I can go to school.

“I want to read and write so I don’t get stuck.”

He adds: “I just want to live like any other child in this world.”

Muna, 10

Jordan hosts around 660,000 Syrian refugees, with around 130,000 living in limbo in organised camps.

Muna, 10, lives in one such camp – Azraq, a kind of pop-up town comprised of miserable rows of identical white-tin huts – after she fled the south-east city of Daraa with her parents and four sisters in 2014.

Hers was one of the first Syrian cities to see bloodshed after the Arab Spring protests which sparked the war in 2011. Assad’s backlash saw a 12-day siege of the city and nationwide violence fuelled violent uprisings.

Muna recalls how rockets and tube bombs destroyed schools and hospitals, and her cousin was killed in an explosion.

After her family‘s eight-day journey to Jordan’s border – ‘the Berm’ – Muna had to wait three weeks to gain entry.

“When we first came it was bad we were living on the rocks and there were mice,” she said.

Creature comforts such as warm clothes do not protect her from being haunted by her experiences. Teachers fear for her mental health.

“I used to have very bad dreams that they were going to destroy our house,” she says. “And this came true.”

Since discovering her childhood home was flattened via her mum’s mobile, Muna has been battling with a new reality. Psychosocial support teachers at UNICEF centres try daily to pull her back into the present.

“They helped us a lot,” says Muna. “They taught us how to defend our rights and to continue our lives without giving up.”

Muna adores the rush of competitive football, is determined to be a sports teacher and, like almost every child you meet in Azraq, wants her future to unfold in Syria.

Usama, 11

Not every hut in Jordan’s refugee camps has a fridge or a heater, but you would be hard-pressed to find one without a satellite dish. TV news is a window into Syria and, in some cases, the only way displaced families can get news of relatives.

Among the hours of boredom – those within organised refugee camps live in limbo and cannot get a work permit – the TV also opens new dividing lines, mainly: do you support Real Madrid or Barcelona?

But for fragile Usama, 11, football brings a violent past flooding back. His school in Manbij, close to Aleppo was reduced to a pile of rocks mid-way through a football match with his friends in 2015.

“We were playing football at school, then the plane bombed,” he says. “Dust came out and the school was demolished.”

He was spared serious injury but could barely hear in the panic and confusion that followed. Gas attacks left his friends in the city unable to breathe and Usama left with his father for Jordan the following day.

Aleppo was a city torn apart by Assad forces, ISIS and rebels, and not liberated from ISIS until June.

The US military admitted responsibility for the deaths of around two dozen civilians at Manbij in 2016 when it was the scene of fierce fighting with ISIS.

Gripping the sleeves of his jumper at the UNICEF Makani centre in Azraq, it’s clear Usama does not know who he can trust.

Many families who witnessed gas attacks refused UNICEF vaccinations because they feared a plot to kill them.

Usama’s message is simple: “I wish that Syria goes back to what it used to be and that we all play together like we used to.”

Abdul Karim, 17

The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan (80%) live in host communities, a situation which often creates tension with locals who feel the Jordanian economy is buckling under the strain.

At 17, Abdul Karim, is a young man trying to negotiate a path into adulthood after arriving from war-torn Damascus. Home is not a place of safety.

Older Syrian men’s experience of the war teamed with a lack of money, space and freedom is putting pressure on refugee families like never before, says UNICEF.

Abdul Karim’s says his father has changed to become more intense and emotional since they were forced to leave Syria and is struggling to cope.

“He was never like this before the war,” says the teen.

His anger is palpable, but he draws hope from the UNICEF drama club at a Makani (Arabic for ‘my space’) centre. There, he can channel his emotions.

“I have found my character here,” he says, speaking in Mafraq, just miles from the country’s largest refugee camp.

His family escaped Syria when he was 12, but the horrors of the gas bombs, explosions and hunger visited on his community are still fresh in his mind.

“The things that happened to the Syrian people; the hunger,” he said. “Blasphemy has become commonplace. Death has become commonplace.”

He begs the world not to forget Syria, seven years since war broke out.

“Nobody cares anymore about the Syrian people, even the news about them has been cut off.”

Amar, 17

The war has so far claimed almost half a million lives, but chunks of Syrian’s rich heritage has also been obliterated.

ISIS did irreparable damage to the ancient citadel of Palmyra, in Homs, and Al-Madina Souq – Aleppo’s old city – was also destroyed.

When asked about this Amar feels the loss deeply. “It is not the buildings we have lost, but the people, the Syrian people” he says.

Unlike Abdul Karim, Amar, also 17, would give anything to spend more time with his father. His dad is trapped in Homs but they speak daily on the phone.

The sharply-dressed teen works as a barber in the Mafraq camp to make sure his siblings can eat. Like many refugees who initially borrowed money to get by, his family has exhausted all sources of income.

Drama allows Amar to express himself and he hopes one day to make acting a full time job.

When relaying his message to the world he is unable to contain his emotion.

He says: “Syria is our mother and she is our sweetheart. We will return to her, God willing.

“No matter what happens, we will return to Syria. They destroyed her and everything but we will go back to her.”

Ala’a, 15

The toughest job for UNICEF is the battle to preserve the mental health of these children, who have seen and experienced the unimaginable.

Ala’a, a 15-year-old who lives in Azraq, was out playing with friends in Homs when an explosion – thought to be an Assad bomb – threw him across the street and changed his life forever.

He sustained a serious spinal injury and, after an infection took hold, was left unable to walk. He remembers nothing but a flash and suffering ‘a fever’ from which his legs did not recover.

The family set off on foot to Jordan and Ala’a’s father carried him the final stretch to the Berm up a mountain in the rain.

His disability means extremists would attempt to target him but, as it is, he spends every day at the UNICEF Makani centre playing football, table tennis and chess. He is whip-smart with a cheeky grim and a nervous laugh.

He longs to walk again but his deepest desire is to return to Syria as a fully-trained engineer ready to play his part in rebuilding his home.

“I would like to walk again and to be an engineer, a construction engineer, so I can help to rebuild Syria.”

He adds, perhaps speaking for all of the 5.5 million forced from their country by the war: “I wish that everything returns to normal in Syria and that we all return to our country in safety. That’s it.”

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