ZAATARI, Jordan (AP) — For many Syrian children traumatized and driven from their homes by their country's civil war, the opportunity to head back to school — even if it's in a dusty, wind-swept refugee camp — is a chance to return to a semblance of normalcy.
The children have a lot to try to overcome. Many have had relatives killed. They have seen their neighborhoods destroyed by bombings as the regime of President Bashar Assad battles rebels who have been trying for 19 months to topple him. They have endured as they and their families fled across the border into an unknown future in Jordan.
"Bashar shelled us and my cousin died. I want Assad to go away, so I can go back to Syria," said Safa, a 13-year-old who was among 2,300 children who were able to resume their studies in this tent city near Jordan's border with Syria.
"They started this school to try to help us forget what has been happening, but that's hard. Still, I'm happier now that I can study again," said the petite girl in a black headscarf at the beginning of her Arabic grammar class.
The start of school in the Zaatari refugee camp is a step in international efforts to help Jordan deal with what has become an overwhelming wave of refugees from the Syria conflict. More than 200,000 Syrians who fled the civil war are now in Jordan, their numbers growing daily, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Zaatari is home to 33,000 of the refugees, and it has become known as the "children's camp" because nearly half its residents are under the age of 18.
The U.N. children's agency hopes classes and the routine they provide will bring some stability back to the children's lives.
"School is the first step to bring children to a place of healing," said Dominique Hyde of UNICEF, which along with Jordan's Ministry of Education, opened the school at the camp last week.
"It's where we will be able to notice some of the psycho-social consequences of all of the challenges that they've lived through. Many crossed the border with almost nothing on their backs. Families are distraught; the parents do not know what the future holds," she said.
At a girls class, 13-year-old Rasha, from the central city of Homs, said she suffers from constant nightmares.
"I keep seeing my uncles shot and bleeding from everywhere," the young girl said, as her face turned ashen. "My mother tells me a story to try to help me sleep, but it's not working."
Another girl, Raghad, said her house was destroyed in Daraa, the southern Syrian town where the uprising began in March 2011. "It's much better here than in Syria. At least I can study again in school. But it's hard for me to sleep at night because I often feel pain," the 11-year-old said, as she wiped a tear from her eye.
So far, the school consists of 14 large green and yellow-striped cloth tents, each hosting two classrooms of 40 pupils each, covering grades 1-12. Inside are plastic chairs and tables, blackboards, pencils and paper. Girls attend classes in the morning, boys in the afternoon because there is not enough room.