On Tuesday, UNICEF released a new report which says that 1.2 million of Syria’s refugees — nearly half of the total number of Syrians who have fled the country, mainly to neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — are children.
Nearly half of them are under the age of five, and another three million have been displaced inside the country.
Syria Deeply spoke to UNICEF regional communication specialist Najwa Mekki about the report and the #NoLostGeneration campaign the organization is launching this week to raise awareness about the plight of Syria’s children.
Syria Deeply: How big is the impact of this war on Syria’s children, both those displaced and those still living in conflict areas?
Najwa Mekki: You look around at the infrastructure for basic health, education, and mental health, and you see how wide spread the impact is on Syria’s children.
An estimated three million buildings have been destroyed, along with much of the country’s critical infrastructure. More than six million people have been displaced inside the country, meaning that more than a third of all Syrian children are no longer living in their own homes or communities.
The difficult conditions, lack of security, the act of conflict, and the displacement, all mean that 3 million children are not getting access to schools. That’s about half of Syria’s school age population.
One out of every 5 schools has been damaged or destroyed, or are being used as housing for IDPs.
This is a conflict that is touching every single child. It does not discriminate between rebel and regime held areas. The impact varies from those who have not set foot inside a school for years, to those who have known nothing but conflict and destruction. Nobody has been spared, whether they are witnessing it outside their bedroom windows, or whether they are hearing about it from friends and family living inside Syria affected by crisis.
SD: Is the extent of the damage to the health infrastructure particularly startling?
NM: Three years of displacement and collapsing health services have left Syria’s children highly vulnerable. According to our report, ‘an estimated 60 per cent of Syrian hospitals have been destroyed or damaged. Seventy per cent of health centers in A-Raqqa, Deir Ezour and Homs are either damaged or out of service. Less than a third of public ambulances and health centers still function, while pharmacies lack basic medicines.
Immunization rates across the country have fallen from 99 percent pre-war to just 52 per cent.’ If the world needed another reminder of the conflict’s impact on children, polio was it. Syria has been polio free for 14 years. Children have been displaced, children without access to humanitarian aid, have missed out on basic vaccinations.
There was a mobilization to vaccinate more than 20 million children across the Middle East. I remember being in Zaatari going tent –to- tent trying to vaccinate children. As soon as one family found out we were there, they told other families and pro-actively sought out the vaccinators. Parents are aware of the risks that are threatening their children; there is no resistance to getting help for their children. This gives us hope.
SD: The latest estimates suggest that there are now one million children either living under siege or in areas of the country that are hard-to-reach because of intense violence. Is that accurate?
NM: One doctor wrote to UNICEF from a field hospital inside one of the besieged areas, describing people dying from ‘festering wounds, malnutrition, bad water and lack of simple medicines.’
My colleagues were a part of the Homs evacuations. They said it was obvious that the children have been under extreme duress for a very long period of time. You see fear in their eyes, their faces are gaunted and you can see the emptiness reflected in the camera. These kids were clinging to their parents and constantly crying.
I remember a very moving photo of a UNICEF colleague picking up a 4 or 5-year-old baby girl who was lost. It turned out her mother had died the day before. You see the look on her face, the fear in the eyes… I can’t imagine what it’s like for a child to loose her mother, to be under such circumstances for three years.
SD: For younger children, the experience of conflict has become “normal”. What are the psychological effects you’ve seen?
NM: It creates an environment of tension that makes the impact of the crisis deeper and harder to process for the child. They are all in survival mode, and are processing the conflict in different ways. The kids start displaying signs of trauma: bed wetting, clinging to their parent. Mothers told us that they don’t recognize their children anymore. Their children have become violent..they run around and don’t listen to their parents.
The [parents’] decision to leave Syria was at a very high cost. It wasn’t an immediate decision. Most families wanted to wait it out, but there came a point when the violence became personal — their house was shelled down, a brother lost a limb, a father died in conflict. — and that’s when a lot of them decided to leave.
The journey from Syria to a neighboring country is not an easy journey, and it is different for each family. Some have to travel by night, some travel by shelling, some take long and torturous detours to Jordan or Turkey. The experience of living through violence for years and crossing the border into a neighboring country, arriving in a new environment and living in a refugee camp instead of a home with a garden, is very stressful for a child.
We get the children together for activities like theater and painting. You see their trauma embodied in the way they interact with each other or what they choose to paint. We saw paintings by children of dead bodies, tanks on the street, shelled buildings.
When they get assistance and the counseling they need, their paintings change. You see more butterflies and flowers. The kids gradually come to terms with their circumstances and willingness to go beyond it.
SD: It is said that one in 10 refugee children are working to support their families. Has child labor and recruitment accelerated?
NM: The risk for children to engage in child labor or be recruited to fight is very real. You look at a place like Lebanon, where children can’t go to school because their families can’t give them the basic necessities to survive, and it is no surprise that the children are engaged in child labor, and end up in farms picking up cotton, working in cafes and car repair shops or as beggars on the streets.
If you loose hope for the future and you aren’t going to school, you risk creating an environment – a void- where children find it attractive to go fight. The boys see fighting as their duty as men. They think to themselves, “ My community has been affected, my country, my family…I’ll go join the fight out of revenge.”
You also see a change in family structures. In many cases girls have had to get married early. Although it was a practice that existed in rural Syria before, you now see it expanding because families think their daughters will be protected if they are with a husband.
SD: What is the campaign UNICEF is launching this week? What’s the role of humanitarian organizations in Syria right now?
NM: It is our job, as humanitarian agencies, to provide vaccinations, learning opportunities where they are needed, and counseling, to prevent these children who are so deeply scared from being a lost generation. It’s outrageous what is going on inside Syria. Three years is too long. There is a strong urge that this year, the third year, is the last year of such suffering for Syria’s children.
We are trying to look at new ways to raise awareness about Syria. We are trying to use social media to galvanize support for Syria’s children. The ‘No Lost Generation’ Campaign is designed to support the children affected by the conflict in Syria, by mobilizing and implementing initiatives to equip children with the support they need to help shape a better future for them.
The first part of the campaign is a Call for Action on change.org. We are asking people to sign up for the petition to call for an end to violence, to access for children who are beyond the reach of humanitarian access, for an environment where children feel safe, and for education opportunities so that these children have a future.
The second component is called is a ‘fade out’. We are asking people to fade out their online presence (Facebook, twitter, webpage) for a period of three days – each day representing a year of conflict- to show that the conflict is still ongoing, and that the children are paying the largest price.