“I had a beautiful country and a big city / I had a garden surrounded by many houses / I was a princess / I had a neighborhood and a street and an address / Now I’m only a number on the nations’ list / They took my values from me and gave me a number / Nations, nations / where are my rights without the number / Nations, nations, where’s my childhood? / Nations, nations / bring me back to the abundance of my country and I vow to return my rights – I’ll give the number as a gift to the nations.”
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This is part of a poem written by 11-year-old Shaimaa, a Syrian refugee residing in Lebanon. The touching poem reached renowned Iraqi singer Kazem al-Saher, who set it to music and now performs it at his concerts. Maybe Shaimaa will also become an icon for the Syrian civil war, one of the many child icons of that war – like 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose washed-up body temporarily shook the world last September.
Shaimaa’s cry joins the unheard voices of the more than 1.5 million children in refugee camps outside Syria and the thundering silence of the 10,000 children killed in the war, which is now approaching its fifth year.
These are the invisible child refugees, only a smattering of whom attend school. It’s impossible to give an exact figure, since not all refugees are registered with the United Nations’ refugee agency or other aid agencies. According to current estimates, based on cross-checking several databases, at least 400,000 child refugees in Lebanon don’t receive any formal education, and only 100,000 children have been absorbed into the school system in their host country.
The situation is slightly better in Turkey, since its refugee camps contain schools and preschools. But there’s no supervision over the education of the children, whose families reside in rented lodgings outside the camps and send them out to make a living. Those children who do manage to attend schools outside the camps have difficulties integrating. They have to learn the Turkish alphabet, adapt to a foreign curriculum, and suffer social difficulties and even violence, as local children often don’t accept them.
In Jordan, meanwhile, about half of refugee children aged 5-16 work and the others stay home, only sporadically attending school or preschool.
According to the Save The Children charity, some 2,800,000 children left in Syria aren’t registered at a school.
These dry statistics depict the war’s great tragedy: a whole generation of Syrian citizens, gone to waste. Even if the war ended tomorrow, it would still take years until these children could go back to their devastated homes and schools. According to UN data, over a quarter of Syrian schools have been damaged or completely destroyed, thousands of teachers either fled or died, and it would take over $2 billion to rebuild the schools system.
Countering the horror
The different aid groups that tend to refugees don’t coordinate their efforts, and each group finds its own independent niche. For instance, the Baladi nonprofit in Lebanon has focused on rehabilitating the children’s collective memory of their homeland. To counter the horrors that the children witnessed – including dead bodies, devastated homes, the terrors of bombings and the flight from Syria itself – the group has taken it upon itself to teach several hundred children the history, geography and culture of Syria.
The children attend a four-day seminar, where each day is dedicated to a specific subject. They hear lectures by students or experts on Syria’s archaeological sites, accompanied by slideshows; they watch videos of Syria’s landscapes, untouched by war; they study Syrian tunes and songs, build cardboard models of Syrian landmarks; and occasionally a storyteller tells them about the beautiful and flourishing Syria that existed (allegedly) before the war. However, only a handful from the hundreds of thousands of child refugees in Lebanon, most of whom suffering from severe trauma, are lucky enough to attend these praiseworthy activities.
In Turkish refugee camps, I met many children – some of them separated from their families – who found it difficult to explain what they had endured in Syria. “My brother was killed,” recalled a 12-year-old boy looking much smaller than his age, his voice muffled and monotonous. “We left home and came here.” I asked if he was scared to go. “No. I don’t remember.” How did you get to the camp? “I don’t know, I was sleeping.” Who were your friends back in your hometown? (The boy was from Azaz, on the border with Turkey.) “Two were killed.” Then he abruptly stopped and went back into his family’s tent.
The director of the camp, near the city of Suruç, told me she had no money to pay for psychological care for the children, and their treatment depended on the kindness of volunteer psychologists, who visited the camps irregularly.
In the Zaatari camp in Jordan, local psychologists reported widespread instances of violent children who cannot adapt to the new living conditions and don’t interact with the other children.
Preliminary surveys of child refugees who made it to Germany showed that at least a quarter of them are suffering from some level of post-traumatic stress disorder. Naturally, the child refugees who reached Europe have a better chance of receiving treatment, but they’re a small minority among the general child refugee population.
The child refugees who are forced to go to work are in a different league altogether. One father, living with his family in Lebanon, told a Lebanese website of his household’s “division of labor”: “The two twins, 9.5 years old, go out in the morning to collect empty bottles and try to sell them to shop owners. The two girls, 8 and 10.5, go out every day to beg for money. Only the youngest daughter, Shorouk, can’t work. She’s 9 months old.” This isn’t an uncommon story. Walking in the streets of cities in Turkey and Jordan, one can see 5- and 6-year-old children selling paper tissues, matches, cigarettes and nail clippers. Others stand on their toes to wipe car windshields with dirty rags, for small change, and many become petty thieves and criminals’ delivery boys.
The situation has been especially harsh on girls. For the first few years of the war, the media was flooded with stories of families who sold their girls into marriages with old men, and of parents who gave away their daughters to protect them from rape or murder.
Later, stories of child prostitution proliferated, and in 2015 there were many reports of pregnant teens who sold their babies for adoption or to organ traffickers.
This is nothing new: In Turkey, 60,000 babies have been born in refugee camps since 2011, and in Lebanon several thousand were born in 2015 alone.
These babies’ official status is problematic. According to Syrian law, only the father can pass on citizenship to his offspring. But many families either lost or became separate from their father, so the children born in the diaspora cannot be granted either Syrian or local citizenship, and will also have difficulty proving their nationality when they eventually return to Syria.
The young Syrian generation is lost to the state and to itself. It doesn’t include only young boys and girls, but also students who have cut short their studies, and it is unclear when they will be able to return to school.
Compared to Egypt and Tunisia, who retained their younger generations, there’s no one to build a future for Syria, Libya and Yemen. In these countries, the new generation is damaged, haunted by trauma and anxiety. Money alone – if it ever materializes – won’t be enough to rehabilitate it.