Syrian youth and children are enduring crises in every aspect of their life, according to a new report published by Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian organization that works with people in crisis zones.
Since the uprising broke out in March 2011, more than 240,000 people have been killed, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More than 4 million Syrians have also been rendered refugees in other countries, while another 6.5 million have been internally displaced.
Mercy Corps’ new report – No One Hears Us – found that a majority of children and youth in Syria “feel hopeless, isolated and disenfranchised.” It concludes that “we need to support girls, boys and parents to develop solutions to restore self-confidence and hope to young people inside Syria.”
Syria Deeply spoke to Jane MacPhail, the group’s youth director, about the crises young people in Syria endure.
Syria Deeply: Can you explain the most significant issues for young people who have stayed in Syria throughout this long and brutal war?
Jane MacPhail: Many of the assessments that have been done before have been primarily aimed at organizations and adults and not necessarily about young people [in Syria].The very first thing about this was that we were talking to more than 250 individual young people in both individual interviews and group processes.
The big thing that came out from this is that young people feel very disenfranchised in their communities. They feel that they have a lot more to offer, and they actually felt very strongly that they want to be of purpose to their communities. Often the scenario was very different for young men than young women. Young men have more accessibility to the community than young women. They often have more social freedom to hit the streets than young women do. And of course, there was the issue of education. [They want] a sense of value for their communities and they often felt disenfranchised because of the war. Absolutely, the feeling of disenfranchisement crosses boundaries [between government and rebel areas].
Syria Deeply: What are the biggest challenges regarding education in an environment like this?
Jane MacPhail: Parents have to feel safe that their children can go to educational establishments. Young people were saying that partly from a security perspective, often their parents didn’t allow them to go to an educational environment without a level of safety for them.
We have to keep in mind that when we talk about kids getting access to education, we’re talking about them crossing checkpoints or being caught up in crossfire. So, for young people we spoke to at that time, they face really tough challenges. They face tough challenges just getting to our centers.
For the new wave of educational environments now being established [by opposition groups], there is still a lot of skepticism about who runs them and whether kids can actually access them. Parents ask if that’s the sort of educational environment they want their kids to be linked to. Particularly for single parent households, the young males are often the ones who are going to distribution centers [for humanitarian aid] or working some form of day labor. For young women, they are often kept at home for safety reasons. There are many facets here. Often kids are becoming the breadwinners and leaders of their households.
Syria Deeply: How does this differ between young men and young women?
Jane MacPhail: Young women in particular are living very isolated lives. In order for us to open centers in the areas that we did, we had to do a lot of community work with moms and dads. We used [employees] from those areas who already had some contact with those communities prior to the conflict.
Some women hadn’t been off their street for three years. So, we are talking about a long time being socially isolated. Communities try to look out for each other in this context. Young women are often involved in the bartering process in the community, while young men are often working day labor wherever they can.
In a bombed or shell community, for example, young men may go and work to help clean up the devastation. There’s still some small agricultural labor, and young men, particularly in our programs, have started small farming and agricultural projects in specific communities. But there are very limited opportunities for day labor and even less for full-time employment.
Some of these kids had almost finished school, or attained degrees, and have very high levels of education prior to this conflict.
Syria Deeply: We have covered the issue of children joining armed groups and military academies in places like Aleppo and elsewhere. Do you think this lack of job opportunities and options for their future is what drives them to join armed groups or military academies?
Jane MacPhail: I think this scenario may be a contributing factor to kids joining military groups, but it isn’t the only factor. Young people have to have a sense of belonging, and if they’re unsure, then they don’t see their value and go looking for something that is of value. They look for a sense of belonging, usefulness and masculinity, particularly among young males. These are all drivers that push kids to take the high-risk road. When people live for such a long time with high levels of stress, they often lose the ability to assess risk. All of those together are causes for why kids join military academies or armed groups.
Syria Deeply: The Mercy Corps report also touches on an increase in drug and alcohol use among youths in Syria. Can you speak to what is the driving force behind that even as ultra-religious groups seem to gain more ground in the country?
Jane MacPhail: Young people who have lost the ability to access risk go looking for something, and that might include drugs and alcohol. It’s a form of escapism, is it not?
One of the things we do in our programming is to talk to them about why their behaviors are changing. What has happened to them when they have been under such incredible amounts of stress? What does the limited ability to cope with stress or control their impulses do to their minds?
Young people ask these questions about their own behavior. Part of what we do is teach them what does this does to the brain and their own resiliency skills that have kept them surviving all this time. Part of the reason we do this work is to let people know they aren’t crazy and to help them with an understanding about why they feel so separate now from their families and communities.
Syria Deeply: How should the international community change its approach to helping Syrian children under siege in areas across the country?
Jane MacPhail: We have had to develop remote tools because of access issues.
I think what the international community needs to do is stop talking about access and talk about how we actually build up communities inside Syria to have the resources and knowledge to do their own community healing. There are a million ways to strengthen communities without delivering direct programs inside Syria.
I think we’ll have to be very flexible about that, from the perspective of the international community. Because it may not look like it has looked before. If we look at history, it is the young people who are a pivot point on whether war continues. It is them who end up being peacemakers or the ones who don’t have attachment back to their own systems in order for them to feel empathy. It’s about attachment for young people – to their families, neighbors and communities. Often in the context of war, we do things we’re not okay with.
Photo courtesy of Yasser Allawi