First Person

Refugee options: a parent’s worst nightmare

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A Syrian mother holds the keys to her home – the only thing she was able to take when her family fled mortar fire. Photo: Jackie Nelson/Oxfam America

Syrian refugees tell incredible stories of flight, nightmarish dilemmas, and hope.

Jackie Nelson works in Oxfam America’s communications department. She recently visited Syrian refugees in the Middle East and Europe.

On a recent trip to Lebanon, Jordan, and Serbia, I sat on the floors of tents, stood in cold long lines, and walked with tireless refugees who shared stories of fierce determination to protect their children. They were among some 60 million refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide, including more than 12 million Syrians, many of whom Oxfam is assisting.

Each story revealed different details: a wife’s miscarriage caused by a falling bomb; a boy’s burst eardrum; surviving in an unfamiliar country after fleeing threats of beheading in another. But they also followed the same eerie narrative. First, parents raced their children out of harm’s way as war arrived on their doorstep. Second, parents faced a series of nightmarish dilemmas that required them to make impossible choices between meeting their family’s basic needs, obeying the law, and upholding their dignity. Finally, as each choice and each step carried families farther from danger, their stories concluded with a growing sense of hope.

In Jordan, I met a Syrian family with seven children. Twice, the family—along with grandparents—fled to escape harm.

“We moved from our beloved home in the beautiful, historic city of Bosra when people were dying in the streets,” said the mother, holding the keys to her home in her hand. “We had owned a restaurant and supermarket back home. We had a sweet life before this. In the second town we had settled in, in the middle of the night, bombs starting raining down on our house. We awoke, and ran from our home in our pajamas with only our house keys, in hopes that someday we could return. We didn’t stop until we reached Za’atari camp across the border in Jordan.

“In Za’atari, we discovered that one of our son’s eardrums had burst, and he had been severely psychologically traumatized by the sounds of the mortars, shooting, and bombs. He’d bury his head in his pillow in fear and pain when any loud noise occurred,” she continued.

While life in Za’atari has improved somewhat, when they arrived years ago conditions were still quite extreme, forcing the family, who had a second son, 7, who was suffering particularly in their cold and wet tent, to make a difficult and daring choice.

“The children were screaming throughout the camp,” said the mother. “Our son… was freezing to death, so we took turns rotating him beside a wood fire to thaw his blood. It was that night that we knew we had to leave and find another way to survive. The camp was like death for us. It was tense beyond comparison.”

When they decided to leave, they faced another harsh reality: surviving outside of the camp meant hunting for employment in a country that makes it hard for refugees to work.

No work for refugees

About 80 percent of Syrian refugees live outside of camps, and if they are caught working, they could be sent back to their home countries. Now, the father in this Syrian family and one son are able to sometimes provide food, water, and pay rent for their household. But the father told me he worries about the example he is setting for his children—needing to work, but having to break the law to do it. In spite of the difficult trade-offs they make on a daily basis to survive, the family is hopeful.

“I am thankful that, while we sometime have to choose between rent and food, and even though my son has to work, all of my children are in school,” the father said. “We have the strength to rebuild the country. We just want to go home and rebuild it on our own.”

For another refugee family in Lebanon, it was direct death threats from extremists that drove them from their home. They fled, taking only cushions to sleep on. When they arrived in Lebanon, they moved several times before settling in an informal camp. ‘But we can’t send our children to school’, said the father.

Refugee children in Lebanon make a kite out of twine and sticks, while their parents host a meeting with Oxfam about how to improve water and sanitation in their tent community. Photo: Jackie Nelson/Oxfam America
Refugee children in Lebanon make a kite out of twine and sticks, while their parents host a meeting with Oxfam about how to improve water and sanitation in their tent community. Photo: Jackie Nelson/Oxfam America

The school is beyond a military checkpoint. Faced with increased restrictions in Lebanon, many refugees are afraid to leave informal camps and venture into towns and onto main roads, for fear of being detained.

At some point in the many stories I heard, there was always a trade-off families had to make between food, water, shelter, education, obeying the law—choices that left fathers asking painful questions: What could I have done? How can I be a good role model to my son as a moral provider? Mothers grappled with the value of education versus safety for their daughters.

I imagined my friends and family back home in the United States. What trade-offs would we be willing to make for the sake of our children? Would we let laws, policies, or borders stop us from getting our children out of harm’s way? Who would we trust if authorities, police, and those seemingly trustworthy had betrayed us? Would we go home, if home meant more death? Would we stop at anything to try to protect and provide for our children? Would we ever give up on them?

Would we have the resilience to be hopeful?

The families I met do, driven by love for their children.

What can we do to help them? For us, the answer is clear: It’s time to create safe options for refugee families in their long journeys from home. Let’s invest in their security, in the power of their love for their kids, and in their hope for a better future.

2015 has been a year in crisis—but you can bring hope to families around the world. Help people lift themselves out of poverty with your tax-deductible year-end gift today.

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