I have just returned from Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan where I was meeting Syrian families to mark the anniversary of seven years of war in Syria.
The conflict has now gone on a year longer than World War 2, and there seems to be no end in sight.
5 million people have fled the fighting to neighbouring countries, and Za’atari is now ‘home’ to 80,000 Syrians affected by the war, of which more than half are children. It is now the fourth largest ‘city’ in Jordan.
As part of this trip I was lucky enough to be invited to a mothers’ meeting at a Save the Children Kindergarten, and as I sat chatting to them about what it’s like bringing up children in a refugee camp, I asked Muna, one of the mums: ‘If you could choose to be anywhere in the world right now where would you choose to be?’
I’m not sure what answer I was expecting; perhaps that she just wants to be far away from the oppressive nature of the refugee camp, or perhaps doing something that she loves with her family around her. I was taken aback when her answer was to ask me the same question back. Where would I choose to be? And, of course, my answer was home. Home, where my children are. Home, where I feel safe. Muna nodded. Of course, her answer was the same: the only place she wants to be is home.
Muna has more reason than most to want to be at home–two of her children are still trapped in Daraa, Southern Syria. They were supposed to follow with the rest of her family when they fled Syria to Jordan, but they didn’t make it out and there is now no way of getting them in to Jordan. I immediately thought of my daughters being trapped in a war zone, terrified and alone. It is every mother’s worst nightmare and something Muna is living through each day. The strength of these women to get up every morning and carry on is nothing short of remarkable.
And Muna is not alone. Many of the women I spoke to were separated from children and family, usually in the chaos of fleeing or whilst making the journey across the border. Some fled whilst pregnant, which means their 7-year-old children have only ever known life in the confines of a refugee camp. Their roots are being laid somewhere that was only ever meant to be home for a few months, which has turned into several years.
Yet every person I met told me that they see themselves as the lucky ones as so many people are still trapped inside Syria. Thousands of children have been killed in their homes and schools and many continue to be forced from their homes, with 250 children still fleeing every hour. There seems to be no end in sight as recent weeks have seen the ramping up of bombardments, particularly in places like Eastern Ghouta, where children are living in constant fear for their lives.
One of the families who kindly invited me into their home are from Eastern Ghouta. They were desperate to tell me stories of their lovely life in Syria as well as what life was like under constant bombardment. Most of their extended family are still trapped in Eastern Ghouta, and they don’t know if they will ever see them again. Amina and Aseel are a kind, chatty and welcoming couple who told me the only time they communicate with their friends and family now is when get messages about a loved one being killed. They have two children–Yasser, 11, and Omer, 8–and until very recently they were both wetting the bed every night after being so traumatised by the shelling before they fled.
Yasser and Omer are two of thousands of children attending Save the Children’s educational programmes and centres, which are designed to improve the living conditions and opportunities for children, women and families who have lost their homes and the lives they once lived. Whether that’s through vocational training, education programmes, Child Friendly Spaces or psychosocial support services. The whole family said it was these little bits of normality provided by Save the Children that makes them forget everything, if just for a moment.
And so, after seven years of politicians from around the world failing to broker a long-term peace agreement whilst bombs rain down on children, it’s easy to give up hope. It’s also easy to forget that real people are at the heart of this crisis. But having met just a handful of these people, I think it’s even more vital than ever before that we do not turn our back on them. We must believe that one day Muna will see her children again and that the lovey family from Eastern Ghouta will return home and that every Syrian child will be safe and thrive once more.
We can all help to do this by continuing to support organisations like Save the Children, who are working tirelessly both in surrounding countries with refugees, and through partner organisations inside Syria.
Donate to Save the Children’s Syria Crisis Appeal.