Refugee men and boys – in their own words

Mohammad, age 16, photographed in Azraq camp, Jordan

This International Men’s Day (19 November) CARE is drawing attention to the overlooked mental health needs of refugee men and boys.

Male refugees have often experienced violence in their home country, such as forced enrolment in armed forces and groups, torture, war injuries, forced detention and, in some instances, sexual assault. They may also have experienced physical violence while fleeing conflict, particularly at the hands of smugglers. They may be exposed to harassment and violence from the border authorities. Most refugees, including men and boys, are grieving over family members left behind or killed in conflict.

Here are some of their stories. All the young men interviewed are Syrian refugees living in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.

Mohammad, age 16

“Our escape from Syria was harrowing. We walked 60km before climbing in the back of a livestock truck and travelling eight hours to the Jordanian border. I lost my sister for four hours during this trip. It was the most difficult experience I’ve faced.”

I lost my father in the war. He was only 35. I watched him die.

“We lost him and his brothers – my uncles, Abdo and Hassan – they were together in the house.”

I am the only son and now the one who must care for the family.

“My mother is my heart. She empowers me, she encouraged me to participate in the activities at CARE and in the camp. She encouraged me to join the camp magazine. Now I hope to be a journalist.”

We have to do what we can to improve our lives.

“The price of success is costly, but the most important thing in determining whether we win or lose in this life is that we have applied ourselves to the task. The history of humanity is proof that a few good people can make a difference in the world.”

As a journalist, I want to make that difference. I want to help refugees, I want to see them return home soon.

Jameel, age 18

Portrait of Jameel

“Since I left my home in 2017, it’s been hard to find any personal time. You’re never alone. Families live in small single spaces, everyone in the same room. There’s no privacy. There’s no freedom.”

People spent whatever they had to survive just to get out of Syria. They have come here with nothing.

“Now I really like acting as it allows me to create while influencing the feelings of others. In performing, you act out something, someone else’s experience; you can live like them. I like this, at least as a hobby. For a career, I want to study dentistry.”

Nobody, whether rich or old or in a high position should see himself as better than other people.

“A rich man should walk in the shoes of another just for one day to see and understand what poor people must deal with, to know what they are feeling.”

Qusai, age 27

Portrait of Qusai

“For Syrians, the biggest challenge today is that many are losing their ability to dream. This hard life is crushing their dreams. For me, I have no regrets. We can only try.”

It’s difficult reflecting on what we’ve been through. It’s hard to explain all the changes we have faced in the last few years since the war.

“We need the world to understand that refugees cannot be defined by our status. Refugees are human beings, they have lives, dreams, thoughts, opinions. They are living breathing human beings.”

I’m not a number. Ask me my name.

Yaseen, age 18

Portrait of Yaseen

“It’s challenging for me to even understand how I came to be here. Everything here is so different from home – for example, the people. In your home you know everyone, and they know you. It’s not like that in the camp. We were strangers put together.”

In Syria, I wanted to be a doctor. And still today. Despite everything, I still have hope – I get it from my family, from my friends.

“I have one message for other Syrian youth: study hard while you’re here in Jordan and then return to Syria and help rebuild your country.”

Wael, age 16

Portrait of Wael

I escaped the war when I was 12 years old.

“In the camp, I mostly attend activities at CARE’s community centre. I love practicing taekwondo. I’ve been studying it for a year and a half. Eventually, I hope to become a master. I am waiting to have my camp leave application approved to do the exam for my black belt.

“As for martial arts, I have always wanted to be like Bruce Lee. I used to watch him in films when I was a kid in Syria.”

We have boys and girls learning taekwondo. It’s good to include classes for the girls in the camp.

“Some people may disagree, but on the contrary – it’s important for girls to practice taekwondo. It will help her to help herself, she can defend herself. And it’s good for our health.

“My message to youth – be strong, make exercise, try martial arts. Help your body. In sports we must use our strength of body, but of mind, too.”

Bahaa, age 22

Portrait of Bahaa

“In Syria, I was independent and free within my home. I could make my own choices. But here, in the camp, I don’t have that freedom.”

Having to flee the war, coming here – all of this – the situation changes your dreams.

“Because of our circumstances today, my future isn’t clear, but I’m prepared for any opportunity. I am a positive person. I’m a critical thinker. I think carefully about what I should or shouldn’t do, and about things that are wrong and need to be changed.”

I believe one of the main challenges we face as a community, at times, is our hypocrisy - our society judges things one way, despite at times being a participant in it.

“I want to encourage social awareness on issues like early child marriage, child labour, and violence in the community. Everything has changed. We have to change, too.”

Overcoming the stereotypes

International Men’s Day promotes gender equality, highlighting positive male role models and raising awareness of men’s health, especially mental health. Stereotypes around masculinity mean that humanitarian organisations can fall into the trap of ignoring men’s mental health. Men can also put themselves under pressure to be ‘strong’ which leads to them not seeking medical help.

Responding to the needs of men and boys does not mean we should shift the focus from women and girls. Everyone affected by a crisis or disaster, regardless of sex, age and sexual orientation, should be able to access help and support.

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