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COVID-19 Lockdown At Refugee Camp In Jordan Is Tough On Young Syrians

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now let's visit a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Like other parts of the world, this sprawling camp has faced a coronavirus lockdown. It's been especially tough on young people and on two things they look forward to in their daily routines - school and soccer. NPR's Jane Arraf was given rare access to the camp.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Here in Zaatari camp in the main market, a vegetable seller calls out his wares.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Onions and cucumbers and zucchinis - so cheap they're almost free, he says. The camp is home to 80,000 people, rows and rows of corrugated metal trailers. The main street has almost 1,000 shops. One of the shoppers, Haji Fatma, gives her 40-day-old grandson a huge kiss.

In the eight years since the camp was established, a generation of Syrians has been born here to parents who fled the war. But for kids under the coronavirus lockdown, there's not much to do. With the pandemic, schools, sports centers and playgrounds have been shut down. It's taken a big toll on kids in the camp. Before the pandemic, sports were a big part of kids' lives here, a way to relieve the pressure and the boredom.

JAWDAT AL-MELHEM: When they go to school and stay at home, they do nothing. So they came here with their friends, making also new friends. When they came here, they didn't think about anything, just play football for fun.

ARRAF: That's Jawdat al-Melhem, a Syrian refugee who helps run the Asian Football Development Project center. Before the pandemic, the center with trainers in a huge field catered to 3,500 boys and almost half as many girls. Soccer is a really big deal in the camps, and for months, they haven't been able to play.

When we walk into the Barada household, there's a game on TV. Mahmoud Barada and his family came here eight years ago when their house was destroyed by airstrikes. Almost all the kids in the house are crazy about soccer. Maram, who's 16, wants to be a professional.

MARAM BARADA: (Through interpreter) We have these centers where we would go out and play, and there were activities. I love playing football with my friends. I haven't had the chance since a very long time.

ARRAF: She sits on a brown and gold sofa in an extension built onto the trailer she shares with her parents and five siblings. Her sister Toqa, who's 12, says the pandemic lockdown has left them with nothing to do.

TOQA BARADA: (Through interpreter) It's boring. You stay at home. You have to be careful. You can't go out. Everything outside is forbidden.

ARRAF: It's been months since they went to school in person. Very few of the children have laptops, so they follow lessons on TV or sent to mobile phones.

BURHA BARADA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: But Burha, who's 10, says it's not the same. He says he misses seeing his schoolteacher, Mr. Uday.

At another home, we meet Shada al-Hariri, who's 17. She says some of her teenage friends have dropped out of school to get married. She's in a crucial final year, and she wants to go to college. But she found it difficult at first to study from televised lessons without a teacher to answer questions.

SHADA AL-HARIRI: (Through interpreter) For me, it was very hard at first. I didn't really study using a TV. But then I said to myself, if I'm going to succeed, I'm going to have to work hard for it. I found the only way to adapt to the situation was to try and try again. It wasn't an easy challenge. It was tough, but I got used to it.

ARRAF: Families in the camp are hoping classes will resume again in fall. With all the other difficulties of being a refugee for kids growing up in a camp, the pandemic has added a whole other layer of challenges. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Zaatari camp, Jordan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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