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12 March 2020

Stolen Childhoods: Life as a Syrian War Child

Safa Faruqui
Stolen Childhoods: Life as a Syrian War Child

The day after Ahmad was born, a landmine exploded just 50 metres away from him. He had only been in this world for 36 hours. No one can imagine the terror he went through. His tiny skull, still soft, couldn’t bear the sound of the explosion - and it fractured.

The effects of the exploding landmine weren’t immediately visible. Six months later, his mother was worried that something was wrong with him, so she took him to a doctor. Ahmad was diagnosed with a Linear Skull Fracture. His head started to grow larger and the pressure of cerebrospinal fluid on his eyes made him temporarily blind.

Over the next seven years, Ahmad experienced brain seizures and visual impairment and underwent two major surgeries. He can’t speak or move properly, and he hardly ever leaves the house. His family are living as refugees in Lebanon, and his father, Mus’ab, has found work as an olive harvester. But he can’t save up enough money for the surgery Ahmad needs.

An exploding landmine in Syria destroyed the life of an innocent child. He had only been alive for a day and a half before the conflict stole his childhood. Just a day and a half.

Nine Years: Four Million Babies

Sunday 15th March marks the nine-year anniversary of the conflict in Syria. As we head into the 10th year of the crisis, children continue to bear the brunt of this humanitarian nightmare.

An estimated four million Syrian babies have been born since 2011. They have grown up knowing only war, violence and desperation. Half of the country’s children have no experience of 'peace'.

What does it mean to grow up as a child of war? Let's walk in their shoes for a few minutes:

One: Your birth is filled with fear

Even before you are born, your parents are afraid.

Your mother tries to make a plan that will keep you as safe as possible.

Should she get an early Cesarean delivery before she flees her home, so you won’t be born while she is making the long, difficult escape? Or should she wait, so you won’t be born in a war zone?

She has endured a harsh winter without food or heating fuel; will you be born too early or too small because of that? Will she have any milk to feed you?

Will she have access to a hospital, a doctor, her husband, her own mother – anyone who can reassure her when she is frightened?

Is there anywhere safe for her to bring you into the world?

Your parents have already lost so much. They have lost their family, their friends, the familiar streets of their neighbourhood, their sense of safety. They think, will you be one more precious thing they lose? You have already lost so much, even before your birth day. They have no idea what kind of world you will grow up in.

You may be born to a very young mother. Her parents desperately wanted her to be safe and alive, so they got her married as soon as they could. 1 in 25 of you are born to girls younger than 19. Half of your mother’s life has been lived in war; it stole her childhood, and now it is stealing yours, even before you’ve taken your first step.

Two: You have never felt safe

For those of you still living in the war zone, nowhere is safe. Your home, your school, your hospital – everywhere is vulnerable. There are so many reasons for you to be afraid. You could be killed by an airstrike. Or you could lose your leg when you step on a landmine. Your parents could die while you are at school and they are at home.

You are forced to learn words like 'cluster bomb' and 'siege'. You are forced to learn what you are supposed to do when everything is exploding.

Even if you’re not living in the war zone, if you’ve somehow managed to escape to a place where nothing is exploding, you are still not safe. Maybe you’ll freeze to death in your flimsy tent, or maybe the heater will kill you with carbon monoxide or fire. You might be abused or exploited or kidnapped. You have to be vigilant.

You have to keep remembering that nowhere is safe.

Three: You are hungry

You might not know this, but it is not normal to always be hungry. It is not normal to wait, weak and shivering, for distant people across the world to send you rations of basic food. It is not normal to not know where your next meal is coming from.

Out of every 100 of you, 83 of you are living in poverty. If you are a baby, your mother is probably not strong enough to breastfeed you, yet she can't get formula milk for you either. She just watches you grow weaker.

28% of you suffer from stunting due to malnourishment. Malnutrition is the reason you are getting smaller and you always feel tired. When your parents tell you that you are malnourished, they mean, "Day by day, you are dying slowly, but we have nothing to feed you."

You dream about eating an apple. It brings you to tears sometimes, thinking about it. You wish you could feel full just once.

Four: You don't know what home is

75% of the population in Syria have been forcibly displaced by the conflict. That means three quarters of all Syrian children have been forced to flee their homes.

As a child of war, you are used to fleeing. Your family moves over and over again - to the homes of relatives and friends, to public buildings like empty schools, to tents on the border of another country. None of these places is home. You have no sense of security whatsoever. Sleeping on the cold ground beneath an olive tree, praying your brothers and sisters don't freeze to death, is a familiar reality.

Five: You are terrified

Almost all of you are suffering from psychological stress caused by bombing or shelling. You are fearful and nervous, even when you've fled far away from the explosions. 71% of your parents have said you are suffering from frequent bed-wetting and involuntary urination.

This anxiety that you feel every single day and night is called 'toxic stress'. Your stress hormones are far too active, and it is affecting your learning, reasoning and emotional regulation. Because you are so young, your brain is still developing, and the stress of war may have a lifelong impact on your mental development.

You may never recover from living with the constant threat of violence. You and all of your friends, a whole generation of Syrian war children, will have to bear the cost of toxic stress for the rest of your lives.

Six: You have suffered irreplaceable loss

All of you have lost family and friends. Some of you have even lost teachers when your schools were destroyed in airstrikes. One million of you have been orphaned. You are now struggling to cope with this nightmarish war without the reassuring anchor of a parent.

Some of you have been physically disabled by this war, like Ahmad, whose skull was fractured. At least 86,000 people have had their limbs amputated since the conflict began. Tens of thousands of them are children. You are now even more helpless, unable to even seek shelter during shelling, struggling to survive without a limb. The war has stolen your home, your loved ones, and even parts of your body.

Seven: You are clinging on for survival

Over the last nine years, you have been forced to endure unimaginable living conditions, and the situation has reached "horrifying new levels" (UN) in recent months.

You are living in flimsy tents, in overcrowded refugee camps, and many of you don't have access to the most basic items like a blanket or a toilet. Resources are stretched desperately thin, as these temporary shelters remain set up for years and years. We wouldn't allow animals to live like this, let alone innocent children. You are facing deadly threats, like disease and exposure to sub-zero temperatures, every single day.

Eight: Your future is being stolen

You are clinging on for survival, so education doesn't feel like your biggest worry. You know that it is wrong that your schools are being destroyed and you can't learn how to read or write, but right now, you are just worrying about your next meal, or that fact that your baby sister is always coughing, or the news that you will have to flee yet another temporary home.

But your future is being stolen.

Four out of every ten of you aren't in school.

One out of every three schools aren't running classes because they have been damaged, destroyed, or occupied by military groups or displaced people.

Meanwhile, the refugee families who don't live in camps can barely afford rent and food; school books are a luxury.

In Syria, the war has reversed two decades of educational progress. You have already lost so much - your homes, your parents, your limbs, the ability to sleep at night. Your childhoods have been stolen by this war and it is stealing your futures too. Because when this war is finally over, how will you rebuild Syria without an education? How will you lead the lives you deserve to live?

Tenth year of war: millions of stolen childhoods

This is what it's like to live as a child of war. On every level, at every corner, they are in danger. They dream of the most basic things - having three meals a day, or being able to ride a bicycle. As we head into the 10th year of war in Syria, millions of children have had their childhoods stolen by violence, displacement and insecurity.

Moreover, the recent crisis in Idlib - which has so far displaced almost a million people - shows the situation is getting worse, not better. The suffering of Syrian children is increasing every day.

Over the last nine years, you've come out in force to help the people of Syria. Your generosity and solidarity have been amazing from the very beginning; without your efforts, many Syrian families would not have survived.

Now, we are calling on you to double down on your support. Now is the time to make more du'as, raise more awareness, and give more of your Sadaqah and Zakat to Syria. Don't let them suffer alone. Don't let them lose hope. Be their lifeline.

 


Muslim Hands UK

Established in 1993, Muslim Hands is an aid agency and NGO helping those affected by poverty, conflict and natural disaster in over 20 countries worldwide.