“Sometimes the sea brings us gifts that are not the usual gifts. It happens that from the waters of the sea, people emerge who are tired and worn out. My European friends, my Italian brothers, have mercy on the Syrians. Do not fear their tired faces that have been hit by horror; do not be alarmed by their worn clothing and wild hair. The tyrant, Bashar Assad, took everything from them. They are not invaders and they are not refugees. They are gifts from the sea.”
This letter, which was posted on the Facebook page of a group calling itself We are the Revolution Generation and has been translated into English, Italian and Spanish, has already gone viral in Europe, where hundred of Syrian refugees, many of them children, are knocking at the gates, trying to escape their own country’s horrific reality. The letter beseeches the governments of Europe not to deport these refugees or to treat them as though they were labor migrants from North Africa. “Give them a vacation from heaven,” asks the group behind the Facebook page, which tells of hundreds of refugees sleeping at the Milan central train station, or worse, dying at sea, as happened to 500 refugees whose rickety craft overturned en route to the Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily.
The pace of refugees attempting to enter Europe is quickly increasing, because in the states bordering Syria, like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, the refugees have a hard time finding work or getting medical care. The official routes of entry have also become more difficult to traverse, because the governments of the neighboring countries now examine the Syrian refugees much more carefully and deny passage to many of them.
But while the refugees' escape to Europe has captured the spotlight, especially after the tragedies that afflicted them at sea, there are still about 1 million people trapped in various parts of Syria, like in Moadamiyet al-Sham, southwest of Damascus. This town, which suffered a chemical weapons attack in August that killed 75 residents, has been under siege for over a year. Syrian army roadblocks prevent the entry of food and medicine, and many of its residents are suffering from starvation, which has already caused the deaths of children and the elderly. In recent days, Red Cross activists succeeded, after much effort, to extract some 2,000 people from the besieged town, but there is nowhere to move them. Some went to Egypt, and others will try to escape to Europe using smuggling networks that have turned refugee assistance into a profitable commercial enterprise.
Even in areas controlled by the regime, daily life is far from routine. A French researcher who visited Syria recently told Haaretz that residents in Aleppo know exactly where the snipers are located, and how far they can walk down the street without risking injury. “Sometimes they play games of daring, in which a boy takes a chair and sits in the middle of the street, to prove that the snipers can’t hit him," he said. "Drivers have found alternative routes behind ruined buildings that protect them from the sharpshooters.”
An Aleppo resident told of a new business developed by the “shabiha” activists, groups of thugs who work for the regime. They sell cars belonging to detainees, or confiscate them and charge huge “storage fees” in return for keeping them in a parking lot set up by the regime to store them. “I paid some $375 to release my car, another $50 for storage and another few dollars for getting it washed, a service the shabiha provided without my asking,” he said. But in many cases, car owners never find their cars, which are regularly sold while the detainees are held in custody.
The quality of day-to-day life is dependent primarily on volunteer organizations operating in city neighborhoods. For example, a group of businessmen whose families are from Aleppo donated funds to reconstruct a playground in the city, and Syrian volunteers installed a variety of sports and recreation equipment; the playground now serves the children of the section of the city under the control of the Free Syrian Army. This volunteer group, called Intermission of Hope, reported that at least 500 children enjoy the playground. Activities are conducted under the supervision of 15 volunteers, while in the background one can hear the sounds of gunfire and explosions.
In addition to playgrounds, refugee parents can also make use of online guidelines on how to treat sexually abused children. Such attacks have become widespread across the country, regardless of which side of the Syrian civil war is in control of a given location. Guidelines explain how to identify whether a child has suffered sexual abuse, how to talk to the child about what happened and how children can defend themselves against such attacks.
“Do not expect your children to tell you about the attack on their own; sometimes the attacker is a relative, and sometimes he will either threaten the child or give him money to buy his silence,” the website reads. “Teach your child to say ‘no’ to unusual behavior, even if it is by a relative, and to refrain from kissing and hugging people, even if they are relatives.”
The parents of these children, like the refugees fleeing Syria, care little about the preparations for this month's Geneva 2 international conference, which is aimed at bringing an end to the Syrian civil war. The behind-the-scenes political disputes, the rivalry between Russia and the United States, the lofty declarations, and the reports of another conquest by (or defeat of) the Free Syrian Army do not change the new lifestyle they have been forced to adopt. Two-and-a-half years of war have already destroyed the future of an entire Syrian generation.