For security reasons we are protecting the identity of our staff member who wrote this piece.
Thirteen-year-old Raashida* plays the role of mother to her five younger siblings, while their mum goes to work in the kitchen of their camp for displaced people in Syria.
When Raashida talks about children in Raqqa, she speaks as if she isn’t one herself – despite her young age.
“ISIS would present bodies without heads in front of children”
“They see ISIS beheading people right next to them, ISIS would present bodies without heads in front of the children, and they started to dream about this and wouldn’t be able to sleep.
They haven’t had a childhood at all, an airplane coming and an airplane going. It affected them in all kinds of ways, their lives have passed them by, they haven’t experienced childhood, they didn’t see toys, parks, they only sit at home terrified of ISIS, if they go out and see someone from ISIS they run back home and hide.
“They don’t want to go outside the house because they’re so scared.
“I went to school for a month but I didn’t like it and I quit. I didn’t like it because all the teachings from first grade are about jihad and mermaids of heaven and such things […] My brother hasn’t studied for almost 6 years now and now he is in grade 6 and he doesn’t know how to write his name.”
“ISIS put an artillery next to our farm and started firing”
Raashida’s family stayed in Raqqa until about a month ago, when the house opposite theirs was hit by an airstrike, and killing the family who lived there – Raashida’s neighbours and childhood friends.
“The house opposite ours was bombed,” she says, “We saw people dying in front of us and we thought the bombing that happened to the people opposite us might very well have been us. ISIS put an artillery next to our farm and started firing.
“We got scared so we left Raqqa and it took us four days to get to the camp.”
“You’re not married like me”
Raashida’s new best friend Ayesha*, who she met in the camp when they arrived, wanted to speak to us but we had limited time. At one point Ayesha turned to me and asked, “How old are you?”
I said, “I’m an old lady compared to you.” To which she replied: “No way, you look younger than me!”
Initially, I thought she was trying to flatter me. “You are thirteen, I am twenty years older than you,” I told her.
She stared at me with big, misty brown eyes and said, “You know why you look younger? Because you’re not married like me.”
Suddenly, all the pain and confusion Ayesha must be going through as a young girl hit me. In Raqqa she had been forced to wear a veil covering her face, she lived through a war zone for six years, witnessed all kinds of violence – including beheadings – and on top of this she was married at the age of twelve. All the horrifying dangers of child marriage came into focus.
We have to help these children recover from what they’ve been through. This means making sure they access their full rights as children – rights to education, protection and a sense of well-being.
A kitten in the camp brings hope
There were moments of hope in the camp as well. One family I spoke to had found a kitten wondering around the camp, and had decided to adopt her. The love they had for the kitten and the bond the children had formed with it was beautiful.
Most of all, the kitten helped the healing process.
“My son has seen so much,” a mother told me of her four-year-old son. “He was too scared to even speak before we arrived here because of all the things he saw in Raqqa. But, thanks to the kitten, he is now speaking. His first words were calling out to her!”
“Tell the world what we have been through”
Later Raashida’s father implores, “Let the world see what we have been through. They need to know.”
We have a huge responsibility to the children of Raqqa and all the children of Syria. They will have to spend the rest of their lives dealing with the memories of more than six years of conflict.