"In kindergarten, they teach us the letters and the numbers, and we play together," Mohammad, a wide-eyed 6-year-old, (below) tells a visitor to his class in Jordan's Za'atari Refugee Camp. "When I grow up, I want to become a policeman and I am going to drive their beautiful cars with all the lights and sirens."
But first, he needs to feed his baby doll.
There's so much to do in Mohammad's new classroom, one of 54 new kindergartens built and equipped by UNICEF in Azraq and Za'atari refugee camps. These eager young students were born refugees, to parents forced out of Syria by violence. Their families gave up everything to find safety in Jordan, and their lives are still filled with uncertainty. But here in their kindergarten classroom, the students are free to play and learn, away from the pressures of life in a refugee camp.
"I learn because I must. Everyone should get an education," says Maya, 6, drawing carefully on a white board (below). "I would like to be a doctor when I grow up. I will help treat sick people."
Staffed by 65 new teachers and principals recruited by Jordan's Ministry of Education, the new classes are giving nearly 4,000 Syrian refugee children the chance to get the best start to their education. UNICEF is supporting the training of kindergarten teachers in inclusive education so that all children, including those with disabilities, can enroll and get the quality, equitable pre-primary education they need to thrive.
"Kindergarten is especially important for refugee children who have lived through experiences that have been traumatic and are living with toxic stress that can create difficulties for them," said UNICEF Early Childhood Specialist Eduardo Garcia Rolland.
Positive experiences in the early years shape and connect a child's growing brain. Research shows that exposure to toxic stress — along with poor nutrition, ill health, pollution and lack of stimulation — can irreparably damage the brains of young children, jeopardizing their ability to grow up to be healthy adults who shape the society of the future. Investing in quality early education for these young refugees — and for all children — will have an enormous impact on the world for generations to come.
"Quality and inclusive preschool gives every child the best start to their education — preparing them for future learning, reducing drop-outs and improving their overall learning and development," said Robert Jenkins, Representative, UNICEF Jordan. "UNICEF is working closely with the Ministry of Education to provide quality, inclusive education and safe learning environments for all children in Jordan."
For over 70 years, UNICEF has been putting children first, working to protect their rights and provide the assistance and services they need to survive and thrive. With a presence in 190 countries and territories, UNICEF has helped save more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world.
Top photo: Haneen, 5, looks forward to learning and playing in her new kindergarten classroom, built and equipped by UNICEF, in Jordan's Za'atari Refugee Camp. All photos © Christopher Herwig for UNICEF