Ishmael Beah, author, former child soldier and UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War, wrapped up a three-day visit to Jordan this week to help amplify the voices of vulnerable young people affected by the conflict in Syria.

Ishmael Beah (centre) in Zaatari
Ishmael Beah (centre) in Zaatari

Beah, who is internationally renowned for his books, A Long Way Gone, A Memoir of a Child Solider,’ and Radiance of Tomorrow, A Novel, was in Jordan to develop the advocacy skills of nearly 50 young people from Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Many of them have seen their lives upended by the six year-long war in Syria.

While in Jordan, Beah visited children in the Za’atari refugee camp near the Syrian border, and a UNICEF supported-Makani centre in Amman where children and young people can come to learn and get psychosocial support.

After more than six years of war and heavy violence, more than 2.5 million children from Syria are now living as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

“Young people who survive war have an amazing ability to persevere and become the champions for peace that are so needed, despite the horrors they have been through,” said Beah, who attended a UNICEF-supported workshop on youth engagement.

“I know from experience that all that pain, that unimaginable suffering, and that sense of loss of humanity, can all be refocussed towards something positive,” said Beah. “Especially when you have someone who believes in you, supports you and extends a helping hand.”

With support from UNICEF, partners and donors including the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis (MADAD), 120 young people who are refugees or vulnerable host communities have been trained as researchers as part of an innovative Participatory Action Research initiative where young people can open up to each other about their lives and aspirations.

The researchers interview other marginalized young people to find their biggest challenges. Many of them have dropped out of school and started working to help their families make ends meet. The research is meant to contribute to better access to education and vocational training. The training also equips vulnerable young people with skills to address issues like early marriage, protection against violence and hazardous types of labour.

“Children and young people are not the problem – they are a fundamental part of the solution,” said Veera Mendonca, UNICEF’s Regional Advisor for Adolescent Development. “If we invest in them they will become the doctors, lawyers, nurses, thinkers, entrepreneurs and the change makers for children’s rights.”

For Israa, 20, a Syrian refugee in Jordan, and a young researcher, the training has made a difference. “The training taught me how to identify people’s problems and ways that can help make our voices be heard,” she said, noting that she has applied some of her learning to talk families out of getting girls married early.

“These young people have been teaching me a lot in return,” said Beah, who as a child was made to fight in the civil war in Sierra Leone, before attending a UNICEF-supported rehabilitation centre. He lost his family in the war and eventually had to flee the country.

“These young people don’t want to be pitied, they want to have their rights respected and be empowered so that they can grow to their full potential.”

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