I had the opportunity to chat recently with someone who works with Syrian refugees. The project he works on provides meaningful educational and social activities for Syrian youth. To my amazement, he said that his largest concern is the young men. Or, perhaps more accurately, the teenage boys.
In Jordan’s refugee camp, and in neighbourhoods where many Syrian refugees are living, there are various programmes in place for children under 12: social activities, “child-friendly spaces” (safe venues for kids to play), and school to attend.
There are also all kinds of programmes for young women – in fact, these activities cater to all women who aren’t too busy ensuring the survival of their children or whose families aren’t too worried about their safety. (In the camp, apparently, many girls’ families are not allowing them out of the tent at all. Since life in the refugee camp entails co-existing in such close proximity with near-strangers, it is hard to help young women preserve their dignity: single men can be found in the next tent over! So many families don’t let their teenage girls leave at all.) If, however, a girl is allowed to leave, there are things to do. There are sewing and embroidery courses, there is school to attend (which is theoretically true for boys as well but attendance rates are much higher for girls), and there are Qur’an readings to join.
Guys, however… well, it often seems that boys only have one activity: standing around doing nothing with other guys. They have friends, sure, and the friends hang out together. But they hang out in the centre of the camp and chat. They are looking for distractions, and those distractions as likely as not might be delinquent activities. Nothing better to do? Let’s steal something. Let’s harass that girl coming home from school. Let’s go back to Syria and fight in the war.
Most of these boys are actually the heads of their households now. Their fathers stayed in Syria to protect their property, or to keep working the land, or to fight. These boys are not ready to be men yet, and indeed in the camp they have little to do by way of caring for their families: food and shelter is provided and work is almost nonexistent for anyone who isn’t entrepreneurial enough to come up with their own little business plan. So teenage boys living as refugees in Jordan usually find themselves under pressure to man-up, but with no role models to follow. They don’t know what to do with themselves.
The girls in the camp have told aid workers that, since becoming refugees, the guys in their families have become more aggressive, more violent, more restless. Living in cramped quarters with nothing to do and a fair bit of responsibility… yes, I think I should be worried about the young men as well.