The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that 14,629 children have been killed in the country’s conflict, with one child dying every two hours. In south Damascus, a rising number of those children are orphans, or “foundlings,” either found after their families have been killed, or after their parents, no longer able to provide for them, leave them on the streets.
In November 2013, Um Omar, a 40-year-old Damascus housewife, founded the Sunshine Charitable Organization, a small orphanage in the southern suburbs of the capital that takes in its orphans. Here, she discusses the challenges of the work, and the reason why increasing numbers of children are alone on Syria’s streets.
Syria Deeply: How did you find these children?
Um Omar: After the siege tightened on people in the south, some families left their children in the street. Our activists made rounds in the alleys, and when they found abandoned children, they brought them to the orphanage, and that’s where we step in. We feed them, take care of them, and most importantly, we work on their psychological rehabilitation. Many of them were aggressive and introverted. For example, we found two kids who were six years old and nine years old. When they arrived to the orphanage, they insulted and hit other kids. A desire for revenge controlled them. We sheltered them, provided them with love and care, held conversations with them, and, after the siege ended, we gave them clothes and toys. They are peaceful and social now.
Syria Deeply: Were all children you found abandoned by their families?
Um Omar: No. There are those who lost their families during the continuous bombing of the area. We once found a child who was eating garbage and sleeping in empty houses. His father was dead and his mother was displaced. We took him in and took care of him. We searched for his mother and we finally contacted her, but she had trouble entering the area because of the siege. After a long process and many negotiations with officers at governmental check points, they finally allowed her in and she now has her child with her.
Syria Deeply: Do you try to find their families?
Um Omar: We definitely do because we can’t keep them at the orphanage for long. First of all, we don’t have the financial resources to take care of them for long, and also, it is always better for children to be with their families. After the siege ended, people were able to come back to the area and reunite with their children.
Syria Deeply: What are the worst situations that you have witnessed?
Um Omar: The worst is when children are sexually abused in their search for food. There was a 15-year-old girl looking for food in the street next to our building when a man stopped her. We saw them talking for some time and then he asked her to come with him to his place for some food. We were suspicious, so two young men who work for our organization followed them. When they arrived, he was trying to rape the girl. We saved her and the man is in prison now. Another heartbreaking accident was when a woman left her four-year-old daughter at a neighbor’s house and left to look for food. The neighbor’s son raped the girl. Afterward, she was taken to the hospital, but she did not make it.
In the beginning we had about 100 children, but now, since many families have been reunited with their children, we only have about 25.
Syria Deeply: Who covers the financial expenses of these children?
Um Omar: Nobody helps. I used to take some of the money we received for aid to cover a portion of their expenses. The expenses of aiding displaced families are very high. We used to help 30 families for only two weeks with $10,000.
Syria Deeply: What other activities did you do with the children?
Um Omar: In the beginning, we could not provide anything but food, but now we do our best to keep them happy and entertained. We got a projector and now they watch educational programs. We teach some subjects and we do some singing, but I’m still short on staff. I’ve been trying hard to hire more staff, but my budget is very tight.