So many backpacks bobbed by my building this morning. It is a sight I haven’t seen since my first weeks here. Despite the noise and tremors to the North in Syria, to the West in Palestine, to the South in Egypt,  for Jordan’s children, school is still school. It’s still drudgery. It’s still that unwelcome familiar friend who takes a while to get used to, no matter how many times you meet. Today’s “first day” might be a little different, though, and the number of unfamiliar faces may overwhelm even the most popular of Amman’s schoolkids.

The Jordanian education system is facing a crisis today–September 2nd, the first day of classes of the Fall 2012 school year. More than 15,000 students will be transitioning from private schools into public schools this semester due to increased tuition prices and general economic hardship among a broad segment of Jordan’s society. This is the largest private-to-public exodus in recent memory, and it was quite unexpected by the Ministry of Education. Nearly 10,000 Syrians are expected to be in classrooms today, as well. Everyone knew the influx of Syrians would strain the system, but no one expected these numbers. The Government of Jordan estimates that more than 150,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. There are likely far more. Those 10,000 Syrian kids that will start classes tomorrow represent just a fraction of those who need proper schooling and who face that beast known as “the dropout life.” In Amman alone 5,000 Syrian refugee youth are at risk of child labor. These numbers are big. And as Syria more and more mimics the path of Lebanon’s protracted conflict, few think Jordan will see relief from the flow of refugees any time soon.

AFP photo / Khalil Mazraawi

As I slept Sunday night in Aqaba–after spending a day with teachers from around the country, all of whom are trying to provide medicine and education for Syrians–between midnight and 3:00am, more than 2,000 crossed the border into Jordan. 2,000 people in three hours. More than 11 people every single minute. One every five seconds. Most were pursued by bullets intended to stop them from leaving. Many likely did not make it to the border, a border now closed on both sides.

Jordan is used to “guests” from neighboring countries. Palestine, Iraq, and now Syria. Each conflict follows a similar plot in which Jordan welcomes far more than intended (more than gently nudged by the Big Sticks to the West and the North) and host communities struggle to adapt to the flood of new neighbors–all of whom need food, jobs, education, and homes. The government does its best to dance around the social tensions for as long as possible until the sound of gunshots echoes from within Jordan, and not just from across the borders. Here we are now, with schools beyond healthy capacity, Jordanians infuriated by the increase in delinquency, prostitution, and unemployment in border towns, and local citizens clashing with Syrians in and out of the official camps. Syrians, desperate for some sense of stability–and scrambling to pay the exploitative rent prices of empty flats in border towns–are willing to work for little money and for longer hours than Jordanians. Restaurant and shop owners follow the example we have all set, the road of profit from war.
In July I spent time in Ramtha, a smuggling haven whose shadier industries have now grown as a result of the problems in Syria. There I met a group of seven men, all huddled on to a few mattresses watching whatever TV show was on at 1pm. In our meeting, no one looked happy to be there. No one except the flies, that is. The flies were quite content, feasting on what bits of dried sugar they could find in the empty teacups, searching for edible bits and stains in the worn-out carpet.

Zaatari Camp, Mafraq, Jordan

I’m not the type to glamorize war, or to elicit pity from readers for the victims of a given conflict. Anyone who has interacted with war victims understands both the impulse to romanticize (for the sake of rallying support and counteracting the dehumanizing effects of violence) as well as the importance of keeping victimization in its proper place (due to the risk of setting off a decades-long politicization of victimhood). It would be easy to go overboard here, to write about the blankness in those soldiers’  eyes, blah blah. It’s important, but here it helps no one. It would be sort of contrived, because in all honesty, I was not paying enough attention to their postures, expressions or mannerisms. I was looking at the flies for most of the time. No one wants to watch grown men cry. This is why I noticed the flies in the first place. When someone begins to cry, our default response, as men, is to look down, to find something on which to fix our gaze until all parties involved have collected themselves without being seen, without anyone else’s eyes able to confirm or deny their tears. The man who was crying was a former member of the Syrian army, shot by his comrades as he ran defecting from his battalion. He needed to get out of what was quickly becoming an unbearable brother-on-brother bloodbath in his hometown of Dara’a. Now he is matloob–wanted–and spends most of the day sitting beside his crutches, waiting for money from his family and passing the time engrossed in the numbing stories of Gulfi soap operas. He collected himself quickly after tearing up, and finished by patting the wound in his leg. We then moved to round two of the tea, moving to the next man’s story.

Most of my interactions with Syrians have been far more removed from the armed conflict than was this one in Ramtha. No gunshot wounds, no starving children–just ordinary families who left early enough to escape many of the more gruesome impacts. While “lucky” by comparison, these Syrians are no less angry, no less “victims,” no less legitimate in their needs or opinions. We too often ascribe moral infallibility to those we call “victims,” but to do so runs a risk of losing your own agency as an observer. Ironically, if we leave traditional “victim” and “observer” roles unquestioned, both the observer and the victim lose their agency, sequestered in the realm of passivity and confined to being a recipient of conflict, and of life broadly, as opposed to the active subject in it.

I think of a twenty year old friend from Homs, whose hatred for Bashar Al-Asad–and making Al-Asad memes for Facebook–occupies enough of his time to keep him out of a serious depression. Our friendship started in Ramtha when we were both volunteering to document interviews with Syrian refugee families. Most consider him blessed, fortunate to be from a family with enough savings to live comfortably in Irbid. But, just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you’re not a refugee. Indeed so many things are easier when you have enough money, and there are cushions to soften the fall–social and psychological–of displacement. Regardless of wealth, though, displacement sprouts similar roots of helplessness, uncertainty, and anger in the heart and mind.

There are also a few stories of reverse migration, of people moving back into Damascus to be with those they love, and, if fate has it, die with those they love. The prospect of suffering from separation and solitude both is far more terrifying, for some, than living in the middle of a war zone. A friend  just moved back to Damascus after a long separation from her children. Her smile shines amid the gray landscape the rest of the world has painted for her city, and she, for me, is a constant reminder of just how much of life continues as before during war. Love does not stop, cooking dinner does not stop, cleaning the house and watching TV do not stop (of course there are many cases in which these things are interrupted–in areas where fighting is more intense). The nature of urban warfare is locality-based, allowing normalcy one day, and explosion the next.
Much of my work is focused on non-formal education models rooted in the work of Paulo Freire,  a Brazilian teacher who penned the widely-red Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Freire’s work has a particular relevance in working in education with displaced populations, as armed violence, like occupation and oppression–reduces the individual to an “object” of life. This role is internalized, particularly by youth, whose entire lives have the potential to go on under the shadow of this self-perception. So many youth I have met live lives in which they simply adapt to what happens around them. For Freire, the idea of adaptation without integration (defined as the ability to adapt and subsequently alter reality through reflection and action) is symptomatic of dehumanization. In this context education takes on a restorative role if accompanied by the right methods of teaching and dialogue.
So, this is what we try to do.
School starts today. What we do with and for the thousands of vulnerable Syrians and Jordanians living in this tense and risky time has long-term consequences. Not all will fit in classrooms. Not all will have the option of choosing between school and work. Not all will be able to sleep soundly at night without terrorizing nightmares. If we can help 200, we will help 200, and do our very best to bring a bit of safety, of restoration, and of normalcy to a life they did not choose, but in which they by very virtue of being people, deserve to succeed.

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