Saturday 24 September 2016

Spare a thought for the children of Syria, where going back to school is just a dream

Brid Kennedy

Published 01/09/2016 | 02:30

Displaced children at the Za'Atari Refugee Camp in Jordan close to the Syrian border Picture: Mark Condren
Displaced children at the Za'Atari Refugee Camp in Jordan close to the Syrian border Picture: Mark Condren

While browsing the stationery aisle of my local supermarket last week, I saw a little girl faced with an agonising dilemma. She was studying two pencil cases meticulously, her blue eyes darting from one case to another, forensically examining the zips and the fabric while at the same time imagining what each one would look like on her desk.

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She was choosing wisely. After all, the pencil case is a crucial and fashionable component in helping her get through the daily grind of school life. She turned and looked up to the person she trusted the most for advice and asked inquisitively: 'Mum, will I get the pink one . . . or . . . the green one?'

The pink one emerged the winner and she sauntered off with her mother in hot pursuit of more back-to-school essentials.

This normal and everyday scenario for an Irish child was played out on the same week an abnormal yet tragically everyday scenario took place for five-year-old Omran Daqneesh in Syria. You don't need me to remind you of the image of Omran's shocked and bloodied face that reverberated around the world.

As that little girl happily chirped through the supermarket holding her mother's hand, Omran inadvertently became yet another human symbol of this senseless, barbaric conflict.

Like children in Ireland, Omran should have been choosing his new pencil case for going back to school. Instead, he was flung from his bed following an airstrike on his house in Aleppo and was placed in an ambulance after he was miraculously pulled alive from the rubble.

This is his 'normality'. His every day.

His only choice that night was to wipe the bloodied mess and dust from his head on the ambulance seat or leave it uncomfortably on his hand.

It was that moment when our hearts broke for him. A distraught CNN reporter struggled to contain her tears when she told viewers live on air what happened this lonely-looking boy, born into war. Omran has never learnt sums peacefully in a classroom or played football with his school friends and he may never do so as a child.

Children are still being blasted by barrel bombs, chemical weapons, thermite bombs, suicide bombs, mortars and rockets. Snipers and airstrikes continue to target civilian communities forcing thousands of people to flee to areas within Syria or to neighbouring countries and beyond if they can manage to leave Syria given so many borders are closed.

For the 13 million people, who are trapped in Syria, their existence is a living hell and they have become inconsequential pawns in a futile, raging battle between multiple players, both international and domestic. But the slaughter cannot continue. The international community must move out of reverse gear and urgently accelerate efforts towards a diplomatic resolution to this conflict.

Irish charity Concern is supporting refugees across Turkey and Lebanon with food, shelter and education. Within Syria, our teams are providing thousands of households with clean water, basic hygiene kits and food. However, access and the ability to reach many of those most affected is severely hampered and consistently blocked by the ongoing war.

No overseas aid has entered eastern Aleppo for at least six weeks now, threatening starvation and disease. Russia has agreed to a 48-hour ceasefire proposal by the UN to allow aid through but with no security guarantees from other military groups, this commitment is hanging in the balance.

The international community must do all in its power to push for an immediate commencement of ceasefires in Aleppo to allow food and medicine in, and to push for a broader country-wide cessation of hostilities and work towards a peaceful settlement to end almost six years of bloodshed.

The unfolding catastrophe has drawn comparisons with the massacre in Srebrenica where the international community stood by as it happened. But the slaughter there at least helped trigger pressure to end the conflict. It seems like the world has become immune to the Syrian people's pain and suffering. The inaction is shameful.

Even wars have rules and civilians have a right to be protected at all times. Once there is a commitment at the highest political levels globally to stop the guns, the shells, the airstrikes, and the bombs, access can be guaranteed and lives can be saved.

Many people feel powerless when they see grotesque images of human suffering and feel they can do nothing to help, but by supporting international NGOs, which are on the ground, you are making a crucial difference.

As we in Ireland get our children ready to go back to school this week, we must cherish that exciting period of life with them. Think of Omran and all the other children trapped in warzones, who dream of going back to school and showing off their new pencil case. We need to prevent more children being born into war and growing up as members of a lost generation knowing nothing but pain and suffering. With real political will and people power, peace, which often seems so elusive, can be achieved quickly.

Brid Kennedy is regional director for Middle East and Asia of Concern Worldwide

Irish Independent

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