Friday 15 December 2017

Unicef aids youngsters scarred by barbarity witnessed over border

Almost half of Syrian refugees are children, reports Stephen Rae

Window of opportunity: A Syrian refugee child at school in Nizip 1 camp outside Gaziantep, Turkey on the Syrian border. Photo: Mark Condren
Window of opportunity: A Syrian refugee child at school in Nizip 1 camp outside Gaziantep, Turkey on the Syrian border. Photo: Mark Condren

Of the 2.8 million Syrian ­refugees who escaped to ­Turkey, 1.2 million are ­children.

Many are scarred and traumatised by the barbarity they witnessed less than half an hour away over the border.

We witness first-hand how Unicef is trying to give these children - many of them orphans - a hand up, full education and hope.

The personal stories are impossible to forget.

Such as the father-of-three who tried to get his daughter to safety at the outset of war. As they attempted to get over the border, they got caught in a minefield, killing the father and injuring the girl. She somehow managed to get home, where with her mother and two brothers, they finally escaped to Turkey.

School principal Bulent Bilir says this was not the end of the nightmare. "They had to stay with relatives and they were treated very badly. The mother had to escape and she had to leave her children behind," he says.

The family was then divided up between uncles. "We saw one of the sons crying outside school. We asked him what was wrong. 'Everyone else has someone to give them a hug but I have no-one. Even my brother, he is in another family,' he said," explains Bilir. "Our hearts ache from that," he says.

Bilir runs the school, or Temporary Education Centre as it is known in Gaziantep, that caters for 2,160 refugee children aged 2-11. It teaches Syrian children who are living in the local community. The school, where teacher wages are funded by Unicef donations - operates two shifts because of demand.

The smiling faces and spirited banter shows the children enjoy being here. Many here are orphans, cared for by wider family or, in some cases, by the State.

Most come from poorer backgrounds, explains Bilir. "Those who come from wealthier backgrounds prefer western-type cities or the West," he explains bluntly.

Like Unicef executive director Peter Power, he believes the best trauma rehabilitation is education. "You explain to the families that they should come to class and that the teaching will help them recover," says Bilir.

Back in Nizip Camp, the schools are also working flat out - operating two school days between 8am and 5pm to cope with the demand from 3,000 students.

Even the sound of a tyre burst on the motorway, visible from the camp, is enough to send the children scurrying for cover, says the camp manager Mehmet Ozdeniz.

Close to the camp hospital, Unicef and the Turkish Red Crescent operate a Child Friendly Place where "children can be children". They can play, get support services and in the case of teenagers, get vocational training.

Here too the teachers have seen first-hand the scars left by the war on the children. "When they first arrive, it is clearly visible. You might be having some activities with music - and if the volume suddenly goes up, you will see some children hiding under chairs. They would think it was a bomb or an airstrike," says Musa Cetin of the Red Crescent.

"The fear disappears after a while as the children adjust and received psycho-social counselling," he says. With the children who don't get any help, the workers see a higher degree of peer violence.

Unicef's Peter Power adds that giving the children an education is the first step to helping them to deal with the trauma. "Coming to school and learning gives them a structure and they thrive under it," he says.

Children in the refugee camps are freezing this winter. You can help keep a child warm this ­winter and help fund a teacher. If you would like to help, log on to www.unicef.ie.

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