Sazan Mandalawi
Last updated: 2 September, 2014

Boredom kills the youth spirit in the refugee camps

"The needs of refugees in camps go beyond food and water, youth in particular, and especially among young girls," writes Sazan Mandalawi.

Early one morning I was sitting with a friend of mine in a cool caravan in the Kawrgosk refugee camp in Erbil. Approximately 15,000 people from Syria are here. One by one youth entered for interviews to participate in a peer education and computer training course. One of the questions was: What is one of the main challenges youth face in the camp and how can we go about solving this?

Some came in sweating from the devastating heat, others looked tired. Girls had made an effort with their best clothing and makeup. In the eyes of some I saw sadness; others couldn’t remove the smile off their faces. Answer after answer. It was all the same.

“Unemployment… boredom… unemployment… boredom…” When I asked for a challenge they face, every now and then someone would reply “early marriage.”

It all made sense in my head. Unemployed, bored youth, leads to an ocean of social issues and a consequence is early and forced marriages. Our peer education training has come to a very important point, but alone is it enough?

“Unemployed, bored youth, leads to an ocean of social issues”

I remember on August 12 the sun was about to set over a few hundred tents in the Darashakran Refugee Camp, in the Erbil governorate of the Kurdistan Region, Iraq. Some 10,000 refugees from Syria live under those tents.

In the early evening hours women sit outside their tents socializing, while children play with what they have, usually sand and stone.

There was an echo of music being heard in distant tents, young boys and girls and a train of children follow their senses to the source and find themselves next to four large caravans. The colorful banner read: International Youth Day.

Three young girls who had joined the crowd were holding hands outside the gate, cornering themselves against one of the caravans. “What’s youth day?” one asked me giggling, the other two covered their mouths continuing the laughter. I explained the UN’s International Youth Day. They look at their feet and clothes before accepting the invitation to enter the center and be part of the celebration.

“But we are not dressed right.”

“It’s okay. You don’t need to be.”

The event of International Youth Day coincided with the official launch of the youth friendly space (or youth center) at the Darashakran camp.

“In our visits to the camp we have realized many youth are complaining from lack of jobs or having a lot of unoccupied time, now in this center you can build your capacities, run your own projects and initiatives and learn new things,” explained Safin Ali, director of START NGO, to an audience of both young and old in the camp.

In the closing of the ceremony young people were asked to write what they want the center to achieve, what are their expectations, and what they would like to take part in. Here, 16-year-old Khonaw sits by a green A4 paper writing: Sport, English course.

She goes back to her seat, then comes back to the same paper with a long list: Music, movie days, volleyball, poems, art.

I stared at the paper for a while, she looked at me, “I will take part in anything here, there is nothing to do in the tents, it is very boring.”

“I will take part in anything here, there is nothing to do in the tents, it is very boring.”

The needs of refugees in camps go beyond food and water, youth in particular, and especially among young girls. “Some of the boys work, they go out and work, but the girls are always in the tent. Some of them are not allowed to go out,” explains Hevan, a 22-year-old Kurdish refugee from Syria.

Centers such as this assist in motivating youth to be active and take part in capacity building programs in the camp; but still more needs to be done for young people who are sitting under tents all day, every day, for not one or two months, for some it has already been almost two years.

This is a matter that all donors and the international community must take into consideration. Three and four years of having nothing to do but sit under a tent under sizzling sun or harsh winter rain has many consequences on the entire life of these young people.

There are currently three functioning youth friendly spaces in the Kurdistan Region’s refugee camps – Domiz, Darashakran and Kawrgosk camps. The spaces are supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Those in the Erbil governorate are run by START NGO.