Restoring childhood: humanitarianism and growing up Syrian in Za`tari refugee camp

21 Jun 2018

Of the 80,000 Syrians living in Za`tari refugee camp in Jordan, roughly 44,000 are under the age of 18. This article explores childhoods lived in displacement in this humanitarian space. Za`tari’s humanitarian apparatus believes children have lost their childhood due to past trauma from the war and current displacement in a refugee camp. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, the article explores the ways in which non- governmental organisations (NGOs) aim to ‘restore’ these lost childhoods by promoting youth, enabling agency and refocusing children’s attention on their future return to Syria. Through interactions with aid workers during programming in child-friendly spaces, children learn new skills, expand social circles and develop forward-looking goals. Children are also active navigators of life in the camp. The author argues that by customising childhoods cultivated in child-friendly centres to their individual circumstances, children construct a Syrian identity that is more complex than the apolitical Syrianness encouraged by NGOs and inherently different from one that would have been cultivated in Syria. Against humanitarian discourses of a lost Syrian generation, the author’s material sheds light on a nuanced (rather than lost) generation that is basing its identity on experiences in Za`tari as well as on the idea of return to and reconstruction of Dar`a, its home city.