NEW YORK – I watch a heartbreaking video of a Syrian father reunited with his toddler son, whom he believes had been killed by the latest chemical attack on civilians in a war whose brutality is relentless. He is on his knees, crying without stop, when he found out that his son was alive. He was luckier than many other fathers, whose children lie covered by ice in the Damascus morgue. According to Syrian activists, as many as 1,300 people, many of them children, were killed in a rocket strike carrying chemical weapons in a residential Damascus suburb.
U.N. agencies estimate that one million children, three-quarters of them under age 11, have had to flee their country since the conflict began in 2011.
“This one millionth child refugee is not just another number. This is a real child ripped from home, maybe even from a family, facing horrors we can only begin to comprehend,” stated grimly Anthony Lake, executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF.) In addition to the one million who have been forced to flee their country, two million others are displaced within their own country, making of this one of the most serious humanitarian emergencies today.
The Syrian children’s nightmarish situation is just a reflection of the wider conflict in their country, which so far has cost the lives of 100,000 people since protests broke out against Syria’s President Bashar Assad in March 2011. Since then, Syrians of all religious beliefs have been fleeing to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and, increasingly, to North Africa and Europe. As a result, they have overburdened the health and social services of those countries and, as stated by Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for Refugees, “The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures.”
Educating this mobile population of children is also proving an almost insurmountable task. Few among them have been able to study or receive psychological counseling. Many fear these children have become part of a “lost generation” of children, who will be unable to contribute with their knowledge to their country’s development.
Educational problems are frequent not only among those children remaining in Syria, but also among those now living in other countries. A study in Jordan by CARE, one of the leading humanitarian organizations, found that more than 60 percent of school-age Syrian children are not attending any classes, despite the availability of free schooling, which may reflect problems of integration into a new country and circumstances. What makes this situation particularly serious is that the longer children stay out of school, the more difficult it will be for them to eventually return.
In Syria, in the meantime, in areas of more intensive fighting, one in five schools has been destroyed, damaged or is being used as shelter for displaced families. Now in Aleppo, only six percent of children are attending school. Classes that still function are overcrowded with as many as 100 children each, according to a UNICEF report. Many children are suffering the psychological consequences of seeing their family members and friends killed or injured, and become terrified at the sounds and scenes of the conflict.
In addition to the challenges to the educational system, drinking water is now a scarce commodity in Syria. In the most deprived areas, access to water has fallen by two-thirds, resulting in increased skin and respiratory infections. Four million people inside the country have access to safe water. However, basic infrastructure and public services have been systematically destroyed over the last 24 months, warns UNICEF.
Many children in Syria have been victims of human rights violations including arbitrary detention, torture, and killing, and many have been recruited and forced to fight by one of the armies in conflict. In addition, many children are maimed as a result of stepping onto explosive remnants of war. Thousands of children have found refuge in overcrowded collective shelters lacking the most basic services. Vaccination against common diseases has been severely disrupted. For most parents, the costs associated with schooling such as transportation, supplies and school lunches have prove to be an insurmountable barrier.
Given the tremendous negative effect of the conflict on Syrian children, it is obvious that we, the national and international community, have failed to protect them, to spare them the consequences of a barbaric conflict. As Anthony Lake stated, “We must all share the shame.”
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international medical consultant.