Tomorrow, on March 15th, we will reach the 6th anniversary of the war in Syria.
At that point this brutal conflict will have lasted for longer than WWII. At least 250,000 people have been killed and 5 million more have been made refugees, half of them children.
No end in sight
With no end to the conflict in sight, images of Syrian children being pulled from rubble, of crying mothers cradling their bloodied children and of kids “playing” in crowded refugee camps have become depressingly familiar.
However, little has been said about the lasting effect all of this is having on an entire generation; with 2.9 million Syrian children aged between one and six, many have grown up knowing nothing but war.
A new Save the Children report Invisible Wounds, the biggest study into children’s mental health in Syria, has revealed that there is a devastating hidden toll – a generation of children has been psychologically traumatised and their chances of recovery are dwindling by the day.
1.5 million find refuge in Lebanon
I have just returned from a trip to Lebanon where I went to meet some of these children who have escaped Syria and are now living in informal settlements along the border.
It is Syria’s neighbours that bear the heaviest burden of the refugee crisis and the figures are truly staggering: since the start of the war Lebanon has taken in an estimated 1.5 million refugees. This means that one in four people in Lebanon is a refugee – the highest proportion of any country in the region.
The flight time from London to Beirut is just four and a half hours. We had just passed over Cyprus, a childhood holiday destination of mine, when the pilot announced the start of our descent – a small reminder that this crisis is unfolding much closer to home than one might imagine.
We set off early from the bustling city on the two hour drive, through snow covered mountains, to the Bekaa Valley. Here, just a few kilometres from the Syrian border, we arrived at a temporary settlement: a collection of tents that is home to around 50 families.
Unsuitable long-term shelter
Local laws, intended to stop camps becoming permanent, mean that only the foundations of homes can be built with breezeblocks – the rest must be made of tarpaulin and wood alone, despite families living in them for years on end.
During these winter months the temperature regularly drops below zero, although I’m told that in summer it can get as hot as 42°C. The challenges of dealing with such extremes within these basic structures seemed immediately apparent. Leaking and flooding are also regular problems, I’m told.
Save the Children work in these settlements to provide children and their families with shelter, sanitation, education and food security. They also provide specialised care and psychosocial support to help them recover from the trauma of war.
Creating safe spaces for children
My first stop was at one of Save the Children’s Child Friendly Spaces where they provide structured play and development activities for children in a safe environment.
As I watched them sing songs, take part in a puppet show and chat enthusiastically about their hobbies, it struck me that these children could be anywhere in the world. Although we were in a tent, the walls were adorned with colourful pictures and the atmosphere was filled with infectious laughter and energy.
Speechless from trauma
One little boy I played with was Kinan. When Kinan first started attending these morning sessions he was unable to speak.
His family fled their town in Western Syria when he was two, just as he had started to talk. He was so terrorised by the fear of airstrikes that he developed a stutter and eventually stopped speaking altogether.
Kinan is now seven and whilst still shy, the help he received in the Save the Children space has helped him start to overcome his trauma and talk again.
I later met the rest of Kinan’s family in their tented home. He lives with his mum, dad and two brothers – ten year old Diaa who is his best friend, and his baby brother Baraa who was born in the settlement.
An uncertain future
His home looked like a simple tent on the outside but was spotlessly clean and well-kept inside. His mother talked of their life in Syria – of their house, of Kinan’s screams every time he heard an aeroplane, and of her brother and sister who were killed in the war.
She looked at her impeccably behaved boys with such love, but also with a pain no mother should have to endure as she talked about her fears for their future. Kinan’s mother told me that their previous life in Syria now feels like a dream.
She doesn’t know if she’ll ever see her own parents, who remained in Syria, again. As she began to get upset her sons comforted her, Diaa wiping away her tears and Kinan hugging her gently. I was so moved by the courage and quiet dignity of this family, living in limbo for years yet somehow managing to survive and look after each other.
Children are being forced to grow up too soon
I met more children and families who all welcomed me into their homes, offered me food and shared their harrowing tales. I met children who were injured by shelling and children who were having to work to support their entire family.
One little girl, Daania, who is only 12, told me that she and her brother get up at 5am every weekend to go and pick potatoes, just to earn $4 a day.
Her father goes out each day to find work but it’s difficult for Syrian adults to work in Lebanon without the right paperwork, hence child labour is widespread. Daania told me she finds it painful – her legs and back hurt as she has to carry up to 20kg of potatoes at a time.
However she brightened as she told me about the Save the Children homework support group she attends where children who also have to work get additional help so they don’t fall behind.
Her dream is to quit her job, finish school and one day return to Syria to be a teacher.
Families who have lost everything still have hopes for the future
Whilst I initially felt terrible asking people to relive the most difficult moments in their lives, they told me they were grateful to be asked to share their stories and were so thankful for the help they’ve received from Save the Children.
Even though their stories were upsetting – and I felt sad and helpless and furious on their behalf – I also felt honoured to spend time with them and in awe of their unending hope in the bleakest of situations.
Nobody chooses to be a refugee
Nobody chooses to grab their children in the dead of night and leave everything behind. And nobody, especially a child, chooses to be bombed and traumatised.
We must continue to urge those in power to do all they can to bring about an end to this horrific conflict and hold those responsible for war crimes accountable; and we must not turn away from those who have been left most vulnerable.
The children I met were in the most desperate of situations but with the help of Save the Children were getting the support they need for a better future.
Kinan showed me that children are often able to recover quickly if they are given the right support. Terrible damage has been done to Syrian children’s bodies and minds – but it’s not too late to change that and give them the future they deserve.
Interested? Read more:
- Toxic stress from Syria’s war threatens children’s futures
- Invisible wounds: Syria’s child mental health crisis
- Alone in Iraq: What’s next for Syrian refugees?
This blog was first published in the Huffington Post.