Forced to flee Syria, young adult refugees stall out

Syrians in the early stages of their careers or finishing up university education have lost critical professional years. Personal dreams are also on hold.

By , Correspondent

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    A new Syrian refugee family shops in a market after receiving their humanitarian aid shopping vouchers at the new Azraq Syrian Refugee camp near Al Azraq, east of Amman, April 30, 2014. The refugee camps, where about 20 percent of Syrians in Jordan live, offer some small-scale vocational programs to target the so-called 'lost generation,' aged 18 to 30.
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A government-employed technician building his fiancé her dream home now volunteers with an NGO for a food stipend. A master's student in English documents medical needs in Syria, her studies abandoned. A factory worker who lost his leg in a car accident amid a firefight struggles to support his young family. 

When Syria’s conflict eventually ends, this generation of young adults will be called upon to rebuild. But they have lost critical years. Their careers were put on hold and their educations ended early when they fled Syria with 2 million other refugees.

Many new arrivals in Jordan were middle-class professionals back in Syria, a country known for turning out some of the region’s best doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. But Jordan, plagued with high youth unemployment – 37 percent among those aged 20 to 24 – has banned Syrians from working. And although it has made public education available for free to Syrian children, there is no such arrangement for university or technical education. 

Recommended: Do you understand the Syria conflict? Take the quiz.

The refugee camps, where about 20 percent of Syrians in Jordan live, offer some small-scale vocational programs to target the so-called "lost generation," aged 18 to 30. Along the southern edge of Zaatari camp, which now houses 85,000 Syrians, 350 students learn the crafts of tailoring, barbering, welding, and computer science. Young women stitch together purses and dresses from the fabric of tents or spare clothes. Young men cut other refugees’ hair for free once a week to practice barbering.

“We want to see them working, to use this time to improve” says Yasmine Farhat, an officer with the Norwegian Refugee Council’s vocational training program, which assesses what services are needed in the camp and trains young Syrians to provide them. Refugees can’t work for wages here either, but they can earn “incentives” – food coupons or other household goods.

In cities, the situation is more difficult. A second school afternoon shift in 78 schools makes public education available to some 100,000 Syrian children, but with no parallel for higher education, it is prohibitively expensive. Before the war, Syria’s strong primary schools were sending more and more students to the country’s public universities, and private schools were also growing. Roughly 20 percent of government spending went toward education.

“Higher education is totally neglected” among refugees, says Ayat Al Khateeb, the Syrian who was about to begin her master's degree in English before she fled. “We used to study for free in the public system, but now even refugees with the highest marks in high school don’t expect to have a chance.”

A dream home crumbles

Mohammed Al Badawi, the technician, had seen a wonderful future within reach before war broke out in 2011. He had graduated college and secured a government job in Homs fixing agricultural equipment. He was engaged to a beautiful girl across town, Nadine. His dream was to build his own home, and he was starting to do just that. He prepared to surprise his fiancé by tiling the walls of the kitchen in bright colors, which would shine as food simmered on the stove. 

But war came to Homs, and soon Nadine couldn't cross the city to come visit the house. Mr. Badawi sent her pictures by phone as he waited for the stalled delivery of cement.

Meanwhile, Nadine’s own life began to collapse. Her father, brother, and uncle were killed by the military in just four days in 2012. The young couple fled when the Syrian Army negotiated a prisoner swap, allowing women and children from Nadine’s neighborhood out in exchange for the release of prisoners taken in Badawi's. As soon as they reunited, they hurried to Damascus to marry. Seven days later, they left for Amman. That was two years ago.

Today, Badawi has neither home nor job. He volunteers with an international NGO that provides him with a food stipend in exchange for six months of work. He and Nadine live with Badawi’s brother and family in an apartment in Amman.

Unmoored

Badawi is one of the lucky ones. Others his age have taken on illegal jobs well below their qualifications for a low wage. 

Alaa, the factory worker who lost his leg, lives in a one-bedroom apartment on a sloping hill of Amman. His wife is pregnant with their first child, and he worries about providing for his growing family. He has little formal education, but before the war, he earned a good salary working at a cement factory in Saudi Arabia. 

After returning to Syria to complete his military service, he lost his leg in a car accident, a collision that took place amid clashes between rebels and the regime. Injured and unable to do his previous job, Saudi Arabia would not have taken him back, he says. Now displaced in Jordan, he has few options. 

“Look at me,” he says, pointing at his lost limb. “How can I work?” He continues, “Really, I don’t know what I will do.”

The few job opportunities available are difficult to find and inconsistent in their benefits. Syrians who open a business can employ 50 percent Syrian nationals, and international NGOs can accept part time volunteers for a nominal fee – but only for short term contracts.

Badawi began working with an international NGO doing community visits, helping fellow refugees access aid services and navigate their new home. For his 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. day, he receives 18 Jordanian dinars, about $25. The amount can only be justified as a food stipend, since salaries are not allowed. He spoke on the last day of his six-month term as a volunteer – the limit deigned by the government.

He and Nadine have an eight-month-old girl, their first child. Her name – Sidra, a tree in heaven – hints at nostalgia for Syria, a green country filled with vegetation and, at one point, opportunity. Maybe someday she will be replanted in Homs. 

“I don’t know where I’ll go next,” Badawi says. He hopes for another short-term volunteer offer with another NGO. 

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