My 12-yr-old self and the girl I met in a refugee camp

Shabnam Amini
CARE's Shabnam Amini and 12-year-old Rayan at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan

I’m 12 years old and sitting in a violin lesson with a teacher I find cold and uninteresting. My Dad’s dream was always to play the violin and now I seem to be living this out for him, despite my loathing of classical music. All I want to do is talk on the phone with my best friend Ella and play netball. Those things make me happy. Not this.

Growing up in the UK as the daughter of migrants who had family fighting a war in their country of Iran, and with an uncle as a prisoner of war, I have some insight into how it feels to live in fear. But for the majority of the war I was in the UK at a safe distance.

I didn’t see bloodshed, but I heard about it. I didn’t see bombed out buildings, but I knew they existed.

I did, however, once have to hide in the basement of my grandmother’s house in Tehran, when my family had returned for six months during the war. The radio announced an air raid was heading for our city.

I was 5 years old and extremely frightened.

I didn’t know what the war was about, I just knew it was happening, and the checkpoint at the bottom of the road reminded me on a daily basis.

My parents chose to return to the UK to protect me. Not an easy decision to make, to leave loved ones behind, but one they don’t regret as I have had many opportunities to have a good life here in the UK, and I count myself lucky. I don’t have the nightmares that I know my aunt still has, almost three decades since the war ended.

I hadn’t realised how my past would become part of my future self until the Syria crisis hit the headlines seven years ago.

A year into the conflict I found myself working for CARE International UK where my colleagues were busy raising funds and assisting our colleagues in the region to help those who were experiencing the worst of humanity.

I put to the back of my mind my family’s experience of living through a war. However in 2016 I had the opportunity to visit the region to find out more about CARE’s response to the crisis that had forced many to seek refuge in their neighbouring countries. In Jordan, I met Syrian families who had arrived in the Azraq refugee camp, and were seeking information and advice at a CARE-run community centre.

I realised those families attending the centre were like my parents. They also made choices to leave their country and to find safety for their children.

Case workers at the CARE-run centre ask a variety of questions to assess the needs of families, including questions about any trauma they have experienced – whether that’s physical or mental health. Children are offered therapy sessions including art classes.

Children in the community centre at Azraq camp
A creche at Azraq refugee camp, part of the facilities at the CARE-run community centre

And in the Azraq camp CARE built a sportsground and centre two years ago which is available to adults and children. Sport is known to be extremely therapeutic and CARE’s idea to build this was an excellent one.

Sports coaches from the camp’s population run the classes. It gives the children vital exercise and an escape to a place of normality. It also gives the coaches and teachers a sense of purpose.

As Jameel, the head of CARE’s Azraq camp team told me, “Idleness is the worst enemy here in the camp.”

Basketball and football are amongst the many sports played here. But no girls were playing: I’m told that culturally they aren’t allowed to play outdoors, so they prefer to use the indoor gym. I feel disappointed.

Last week, more than a year later, I was back in Jordan to revisit the same refugee camp. What had changed? Well, there were far more girls taking part in exercise classes. Something had changed in the time I had been away. I saw young girls running around the sports ground.

A girl at the sportsground at Azraq camp
A young girl at the sportsground at Azraq camp

I was there to find a specific girl: a 12-year-old called Rayan who had been featured in The Times newspaper’s Christmas appeal in December 2016. I hoped she would no longer be there – that she’d somehow have found a way out of the camp and hopefully on to a better life.

But if she was there, I was excited to meet her and see how she was.

Rayan came running towards me across the sportsground wearing her pristine white taekwondo outfit. She looked the part! I can’t tell you how this made me feel.

YES, I thought – things are changing for girls.

If only my Dad had taken me to taekwondo classes, rather than those awful violin lessons (sorry Dad). What a cool and incredible girl.

Group of girls at Azraq camp
Rayan (in the white taekwondo outfit) and a group of friends at Azraq camp

I asked her what her Dad thought of her practising taekwondo, she told me he encouraged it. I then asked Rayan why she wanted to learn taekwondo. She thought for some time and said she liked to develop more skills.

She reflected a little longer and said: “It's because I want to defend myself.” You don’t need to be a psychologist to understand why.

History tells us that the empowerment of women and girls is often a consequence of war. In the UK during both World Wars women had to do the jobs that traditionally had been for men. Once the men had gone, women took up the work. This changed the spirit of women, gave them the confidence to strive for gender equality.

It changed the world for their daughters and granddaughters.

And whilst we may not be 100% there yet, what amazing progress has been made.

The girls of Syria are coming along the same journey, and this International Day of the Girl Child I am with Rayan and all the girls who are travelling towards a life that will be different to that of their mothers and grandmothers.

Through the sacrifices of my parents, I have thrived in a country that is very much my home, against many odds. Rayan is making the most of a life that is far from normal.

I believe she will achieve greatness in her lifetime. Wars do end.

In the meantime it’s our duty as humanitarians to make sure that girls and boys who have their lives on hold can continue to prepare for their future.

Shabnam Amini's picture

Shabnam Amini is Fundraising, Partnerships and Communications Director for CARE International UK.