Syria's children: A damaged generation

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We met Lamees when her father invited us home for coffee. My Refugees International colleague and I had been speaking to him and a few other Syrian refugees at a café, and he wanted to continue our chat after the others had dispersed. On the way to his home, he described how he had driven across the Syrian border several times to bring his family to safety. Before deciding to flee his home near Aleppo, he had been a doctor in a hospital, and served all patients without inquiring about their politics. One day, the military showed up at the facility and shot all the patients dead; he knew then that it was time to leave.

On the first trip to Turkey, he took his wife and older daughter—who had to withdraw from university — across the border. He mimed how he had driven with his head down on the center of the steering wheel, and how he had pushed his wife down in the passenger seat while soldiers shot at the car. Undaunted, he made a second trip and brought out both of his sons. Lamees, who was finishing her end-of-year exams at school, had to wait until the third and final trip. Now they are all safely out of Syria, but unsure of what will happen next.

Lamees’s older sister sat beside us on the couch showing us photos of the destruction in Aleppo. She pointed to ruined buildings, burned bodies, and streets filled with rubble. As the living room TV showed the latest devastation on a loop, she brought up news reports and pictures on Facebook describing the human tool in painful detail. She and the rest of the family follow the news from Syria every day. It’s agonizing for them, but they feel they have to do it.

I wanted to ask Lamees if she had been scared to stay in Syria without most of her immediate family, whether she missed being in school, and if she was making friends in her new neighborhood. But in light of what she had been through, it felt silly to address her as if she were a child. So I asked her if her seven-year-old brother understood what was happening, and if he ever asked about going home to Syria. She answered, quite casually, that he doesn’t ask about going home because, to him, is the only thing at home is war.

As Lamees’s father explained to us, Syrian children are experiencing real psychological trauma, and will need extensive help. Psychosocial services for Syrian refugees – meaning not just therapy, but also safe spaces to play and activities to take their minds off the war – are relatively scarce right now. Large numbers of Syrian children are not in school in their host countries, nor are they receiving mental health services in the key early stages of trauma. The very international assistance that could help normalize their lives simply can’t keep up with the demand. Syrians themselves are valiantly trying to set up social support networks, educational programs, and cooperative local services, but it isn’t enough. Help is even scarcer for those children still trapped in Syria, where humanitarian access is extremely limited.

There are now tens of thousands of Syrian children – both in and outside the country – whose memories don’t extend back far enough to remember a time before the war. Even more have spent a crucial year of their lives dodging mortar shells and snipers instead of studying, making friends, and developing as children should. It’s a sobering thought, and it makes plain how much must be done to heal the scars of this conflict.

Grisgraber is a senior advocate at Refugees International, a non-profit organization that advocates to end displacement and statelessness crises worldwide and receives no government or UN funding.