Since fleeing civil war, Hayat and her cousin Yamama have lived in tents with their families in a settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. But are refugee camps safe?
Hayat lives with her parents, five sisters and one brother, all of whom left the the Syrian city of Homs more than a year ago. She and her siblings and cousins attend classes, but Hayat says wistfully, “Everything is different. Back home, my father used to take us every week to the sea and to the park to play with swings. But here … there isn’t anywhere we can go.”
For her part, Yamama remains optimistic: “In Syria, my school was a building with classes for the big children and classes for the small children. It doesn’t matter if I am going to school in a tent. What matters is that I am going to school.”
A focus on women and girls
Refugee children like Hayat and Yamama pay an emotional price when their social and academic lives are interrupted by war. Girls and young women in conflict zones or refugee camps face graver dangers because they are more likely than boys to be victims of sexual violence.
Efforts to curb gender-based violence have been underway for years, but have not worked at times because resources are not available at the beginning of a crisis, according to relief experts. That’s why the U.S. Department of State launched its Safe from the Start initiative in 2013 with initial funding of $10 million.
Safe from the Start helps UNICEF, the International Red Cross and other partners hire specialized staff and develop programs to protect refugee girls. Such programs give Hayat and Yamama access to medical care, sports, games and art therapy.
Displaced girls who had been accustomed to privacy were uncomfortable going to public restrooms
Enhancing safety for refugees includes designing camps so that women and girls aren’t forced to leave secure areas to gather water or firewood or to use sanitation facilities, said Courtney Blake, leader of a gender-protection team at USAID.
Among Syrian refugees, displaced girls who had been accustomed to privacy were uncomfortable going to public restrooms, so Safe from the Start partners built a multipurpose center where restrooms are combined with laundry facilities.
Making education a priority
Parents in refugee camps typically express deep concern about their children’s educations, said Kristin Frost, a State Department expert in helping refugees. Her office works closely with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to support local organizations worldwide that provide educational resources to refugees. Such organizations establish classes in refugee camps and train camp staffers to teach basic math, reading and other topics.
Parents in refugee camps typically express deep concern about their children’s educations
These groups also build new schools to ease the stress on local communities, purchase textbooks and recruit teachers. “Displaced parents try to be actively involved in their kids’ educations, forming Parent Education Committees at many camps,” Frost said.
Hayat’s mother worries about her children’s future and has tried to register her daughters at a nearby school, but a language barrier in the classroom and school fees prevented it.
For now, Hayat, her siblings, and her cousin Yamama are taking classes within their tented settlement. They are safe.
The United States has contributed more than $2 billion in aid to Syrians affected by their nation’s civil war since the crisis began.