Sunday 20 October 2019

Peter Power: Huge personal suffering lies behind bare statistics of Syria

Unicef goodwill ambassador Anne Doyle receives a gift from Ali (9), and right, having fun in a makeshift classroom
Unicef goodwill ambassador Anne Doyle receives a gift from Ali (9), and right, having fun in a makeshift classroom

Peter Power

In recent months, I've visited the Bekka Valley on the Syrian-Lebanese border, meeting families who have fled the horrific conflict in Syria. Spread out across more than 400 informal tented settlements, families live in inhumane conditions without running water, proper sanitation, adequate health care or formal education. They are forbidden to leave the settlements, and so are not able to work.

As the conflict in Syria approaches its fifth anniversary, more than two million Syrian children are now living as refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Europe's refugee and migrant crisis has its roots in the Syrian conflict; up to 80pc of those attempting to enter Europe are Syrian. More than 100,000 children have sought asylum in Europe so far this year. Last year, 25,000 children entered the EU alone.

Behind these numbers there are stories of enormous personal suffering.

In Lebanon, I met 20-year-old Ayat when she brought her 21-month-old son Mohammed to be vaccinated in one of UNICEF's mobile medical units. Thanks to the generosity of our donors, there are 21 mobile medical units in operation, providing primary healthcare to thousands of refugees each month. Mohammed clung to his mother, wailing in terror. It's not difficult to understand why.

The family walked for two nights through the mountains, from their home in southern Syria to Lebanon. Eating just dry bread, Ayat carried Mohammed and his three-year-old sister, Noor. "I was so afraid," Ayat said, "it was so cold at night. I worried for my children." She arrived anaemic, weak, and utterly exhausted.

Abia, Ayat's older sister, lives in the settlement too. She is depressed and desperate. "I want to go to sea," she says, "I don't care if the boat sinks. At least it will be a quick death and not the slow death I have here". She starts to cry.

Her son, Mazin (9) comforts her: "Don't be afraid," he says "I'm here to support you. We'll go back to Syria. I'm here to help you." Though he enjoyed school in Syria, Mazin was forced to stop attending when the bombing became too dangerous. He works as an agricultural labourer from 7am to 4pm, earning about $10 (€9.10) a week. Child labour is a cruel abuse of a young life.

This family is just one of the 1.1 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. With a population of 4.8 million, Lebanon (which is the size of Cork and Kerry combined) is struggling to cope.

Since my last visit, just six months ago, I've noticed a significant deterioration in the living conditions for these children. The Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote: "No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land". Every Syrian I met wanted to stay in their home country if they could feel safe, live in peace, and be treated with dignity. Every child I met hopes to go to school again, to sleep safely in a bed.

Within Syria, Unicef works tirelessly to reach the most vulnerable and excluded children, promoting their basic rights, ensuring they get enough to eat, vaccinations against preventable diseases, access to healthcare and education. With Unicef's sophisticated supply network and highly technical expertise, we are able to work on sustainable solutions at scale. Beyond Unicef's deep involvement in responding to the crisis in Syria and neighbouring countries, it is active in supporting migrant and refugee children in European counties of transit, including the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Croatia and Serbia, where it provides family reunification services, child-friendly spaces, clean water and support to pregnant mothers.

When children arrive physically exhausted and psychologically traumatised, Unicef is there to support them. Many are dehydrated, sunburnt and have blisters and cuts from arduous journeys across several countries. They need rest, play and fresh food, after months of only dried or canned foods. Many require specialised psycho-social care due to the horrors they've experienced.

Unicef currently operates in Syria and the surrounding nations, as well as the countries of transit and destination. Our roles here and there differ but we share a common priority to protect and uphold the rights of all children as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Unicef's humanitarian programmes in Syria and neighbouring countries, where more than 7.6 million children are in need of assistance, remain seriously underfunded. Of the $903m required for 2015, only about half of that amount has been secured so far this year.

This is the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. We must step up our collective action to address the needs of these children.

Names have been changed to protect identities

Peter Power is executive director of Unicef Ireland. To make a donation, visit

Irish Independent

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