For young Syrian refugees like Hanin, the programs Mercy Corps provide can mean the difference between a life of despair and a future of hope.
We’ve all read the shocking numbers — more than 11 million people, half of Syria’s pre-war population, have either died or fled their homes since the war began in 2011. More than half of those who have fled are young people under the age of 18.
My organization, Mercy Corps, is working hard to relieve the intense suffering of civilians inside Syria, as well as those seeking safety in neighboring countries. We meet refugee families wherever they are in their journey with immediate food, shelter and cash, and connect displaced people with jobs that support small business and help the communities where they now live.
With the support of partners like the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, we are also focused on reaching some of the most vulnerable young people impacted by the refugee crisis. We start by listening to them and working together to provide the resources they need most, like youth centers and activities that allow them to feel safe and cope with stress. Then we provide educational opportunities, job-skills training and community-engagement projects that help them build better lives and work toward a stronger tomorrow.
Our work connects us with young people like Hanin, 11, who doesn’t know how long she’s lived in Azraq. She, her parents and her three siblings arrived after escaping Homs, Syria, a one-time stronghold of non-government forces that has endured some of the worst of the fighting.
Her journey and experience has led to profound stress — and she’s not alone. Already nearly half of Syrian refugee children reportedly show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate 10 times that of children around the world.
At Mercy Corps’ youth center in Azraq, Hanin is able to set stress and painful memories aside. The six centers Mercy Corps operates in Azraq — along with many others in Zaatari camp and throughout the region — are dedicated, intentional places for Hanin and other young refugees. Here, boys and girls participate in activities specifically designed to help them cope with difficult experiences, rebuild confidence and trust in those around them, and develop skills to keep them on the path to a better future.
“We do handicrafts. We play. We feel happy,” Hanin says. Her favorite thing to do: arts and crafts.
At the centers, art sessions allow kids to work through painful experiences. Sports and exercise help them burn energy and learn about teamwork, determination and values. Classes teach them life skills, including communication, goal setting and time management, and hard skills such as English and computers. Community improvement projects, like mural painting, give them a voice.
All with one explicit goal in mind: ensuring we don’t lose an entire generation of Syrian youth to debilitating stress.
And these interventions work.
Matt Streng, Mercy Corps’ director for youth, gender and girls, recalls a young refugee who became friends with two girls from her apartment building while attending an activity at a Mercy Corps youth center. Now the former strangers refer to each other as “sisters” who often turn to each other for support and advice.
“Our research backs these stories up and shows that young people who participate in activities at youth centers are more likely — compared to peers who do not attend activities — to trust others around them, have strong social networks and be optimistic about their future,” Streng says.
For young Syrian refugees like Hanin, the programs we provide can mean the difference between a life of despair and a future of hope. Thanks to partners like the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, we are able to invest in young people now, knowing that it will yield dividends for decades to come for the peace and productivity so desperately needed in Syria and the region.
All photos by Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps.