Last week at Zaatari refugee camp, as we sipped tea that was just a few degrees hotter than the air temperature, I asked a 22-year-old refugee named Hamdi why he was so quiet that day. Hamdi’s close friend Yazan, who has been the only pillar of stability in Hamdi’s life since he arrived in the camp, tried to ward us off the subject. “Mike, it’s complicated,” he said. “Forget about it.”
But Hamdi interrupted him. “My friend became a martyr yesterday,” he said, “in Dara’a.”
Each man present responded with the traditional and compulsory Arabic “Allah yerhamo,” meaning “God rest his soul.”
“Honestly, I envy him,” Yazan said, surprising me, referring to the martyr, who had been killed in crossfire between the Free Syria Army and forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
There are few things more heartbreaking than listening to someone articulate their own trauma, their own descent into darkness. To watch a light dim both makes me uncomfortable and angers me. But this is what is happening to thousands of Syrian young men and women like Hamdi and Yazan, who now live as refugees. I see them wandering a dusty landscape of broken aspirations strewn like shards of glass that only serve to painfully remind them of what they once thought possible. The beauty of what once was, and the memory of it, stops hope in its tracks.
More than 26,000 people between the ages of 15-24, that all-important advertising geographic, live in Za’atri Refugee Camp. It’s a wasteland for Young Adults.
The young men like Hamdi and Yazan who I work with maintain strong relationships with many of their FSA fighter friends. Boys too young to choose self-sacrifice—as young as 15 and 16—leave Jordan for Syria from the camp every day, pulled by the need to do something, anything, but wander the tents. So many young men see potential martyrdom as the easiest means to “freedom.” They are so restless here that they grow to envy the dead.
“I envy him.” To hear Yazan say that—to hear a friend express envy for a prematurely dead young man—was deeply disturbing, and even more so because I’ve watched him get to this point. Any question I could ask in response seemed awkward or naïve. I asked him why he envied the martyr.
“It’s quicker. Better than this. There’s a purpose,” he said. “I go get bread. I come home. I read Qur’an. I stay up with Hamdi talking. That is not a life.” The routine, the absolute lack of sense of place, of purpose, of utility, is evident.
Before Za’atri, Yazan was a brother, a son, a student, an apprentice, a Syrian, a friend to many. Brilliant, eloquent, and a dangerously charismatic leader, he sits idly most of the time, wracking his brain for new ideas, new paths, that ceaselessly lead to dead ends. His frustration is palpable. His very sense of self, of manhood, of usefulness, of potential—is a specter of what it once was.
For many of the 26,000 youth in Za’atri—for many of the Yazans—death is a quicker road to freedom, a path hindered by fewer roadblocks. Surely men and women across Syria and outside Syria will continue to die in the name of making men free. And I make no judgment here of their efforts. But there are countless others who continue to live, even if despite their wishes, who are all searching for the same outcome of freedom for themselves, for their country, and for their families. Our challenge is to create freedom, to regenerate a sense of purpose.
Mike Niconchuk works as Emergency Response Coordinator for Questscope in Jordan. He graduated from Tufts University and is currently a scholar at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
Niconchuk, Mike. "Zaatari's Wasted Youth." Syria Deeply. 14 June 2013. http://beta.syriadeeply.org/op-eds/2013/06/zaataris-wasted-youth/#.UcHI…