Opinion: Syria, ten years on, and Covid-19 has pushed refugees to the limits

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UNICEF’s Ettie Higgins and Claire McKeever share the stories of many refugees displaced by the war in Syria, ten years on.

Today is the ten-year anniversary of the start of the war in Syria. In that decade, hundreds of thousands have died and been displaced. This is our second in a two-part series on the devastating war, that shows no sign of easing. UNICEF’S Ettie Higgins and Claire McKeever share their experiences on the front line of the refugee crisis on the back of this devastating conflict.

Ettie worked with UNICEF in Syria from 2012 and 2014, before moving to Jordan and then taking up a new role as UNICEF’s Deputy Representative in Lebanon in 2021. Claire is the Chief of Communications with UNICEF in Jordan. Lebanon hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the highest rate per capita in the world.

Ettie

I HAVE SPENT most of the 10 years of Syria’s conflict stationed in the Middle East, witnessing the impact of war from both inside and outside the country. The numbers are hard to comprehend. Over 7.5 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance across the region; six million children have been born into war.

However, with thanks to the generous support of the Irish public in their donations, programmes to support Syrian children have continued through these years – from providing education, water and basic nutrition to providing psychosocial support and life skills programmes for children and youth.

I have had the privilege to work alongside Syrian refugees and their generous Jordanian hosts, seeing great progress for children in the refugee camps and in host communities. Children attend school, have access to clean water, health and social services.

The early days of the Syria crisis were some of the hardest before the refugee camps were established. Families who fled the country were desperate for shelter and protection, with wave after wave of traumatised people making their way across borders, where they were welcomed by their neighbours in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, literally, with open arms.

The trauma those survivors carried with them, the destruction they had seen, and the loved ones lost will always be with these communities.

Some children carry the trauma – and in some cases life-changing injuries, with them for life. One little girl I worked with in Jordan lost her leg, her Dad, and four of her five siblings in the war. She, her Mum and her little brother now make up the family unit.

We helped her to get a prosthetic leg and got her back into school. But the support she and her Mum need is much more comprehensive than that. A child protection team works with the family to get her the psychosocial support she needs to be able to integrate back into the community, and to look ahead and recognise that the family can have a bright future, despite this very difficult start.

Facing the fear

Initially, the demand for specialist psychological support was so huge, there were simply not enough psychologists to respond to all the needs. This became a key focus of my time in Jordan.

To be able to meet some of the psychosocial needs at community level, the UNICEF team in Jordan developed the world’s first music therapy programme in a refugee camp, developing a programme that not only helped to retain some of the Syrian communities rich cultural heritage of music, art and story-telling, but also conducting sessions to bring joy and relief to children and adults alike in our community centres.

A year ago, with the onset of the pandemic, fear spread across the refugee camps and children told us, just as the war had come to their homes, this time it was Covid-19 threatening their childhood.

The smaller, informal tented settlements – often at the side of a road – are where we find the most vulnerable children. Together with the team and communities themselves, UNICEF immediately kick-started a nationwide programme – delivering essential hygiene materials, millions of bars of soap, activity bundles to keep children learning and occupied at home during the long months of lockdown.

While the early infection control measures certainly helped to protect families for a time, community transmission meant it eventually became impossible to prevent the spread of the virus. It was a crisis on top of a crisis that we really didn’t need, and that we didn’t have the funds for either.

Unfortunately, eventually, Covid-19 did make its way into the refugee settlements in Jordan, but together with the Ministry of Health and other partners, outbreaks were largely contained.

As at home, the deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine is a ray of hope across the Middle East. Even before the pandemic, UNICEF was the largest procurer of vaccines globally, purchasing over half the supply for children under five. Now we are the key delivery partner with the COVAX initiative, which is co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

COVAX began delivering the first vaccines to low- and middle-income countries around the world in recent weeks, prioritising vulnerable populations – including refugees. As of last month, the Jordanian government’s vaccination teams have begun to roll out the Covid-19 vaccines.

A series of challenges

In Lebanon, the needs brought on by the pandemic are magnified by the dramatically deteriorating economic situation and the fact that Beirut is still recovering from last August’s explosion.

Vulnerable Syrian refugees have been pushed to the brink, 90 per cent of Syrian children here live in extreme poverty. As with everywhere else in the world, this is hitting young people harder and faster than any other group – with many losing their jobs, having their education interrupted.

The impact of what this means for children’s lives is truly heart-breaking – we have seen families turn to desperate measures to try to survive – there has been an increase in child marriage, selling productive assets, withdrawing children from school, child labour and reducing expenditure on education and health.

All of these desperate measures result in this generation of Syrian children losing their childhood, of a chance to live a better life and be able to contribute fully to society. Sadly, the situation for the most vulnerable children 10 years after the Syrian war began is extremely bleak and the needs are huge. Our response must be to build a better future for every child.

Working together in solidarity, we can and must ensure the most vulnerable children in Lebanon – including refugees, children living with disabilities and children at risk of violence and extreme poverty – are kept healthy, safe and learning.

Claire, Jordan

When we asked children living in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan if they had an object from Syria that was special to them, I didn’t expect to arrive at the UNICEF Makani centre the next day to a queue of boys and girls stretching the whole way around the centre’s courtyard. Each child clutching something tightly, unwrapping it gently as they approached us. 

Rudaina brought her family’s house keys from Syria and told us that she was going to be the one to run and open their front door when the family eventually return home. “My parents tell me that Syria is beautiful,” she told me. “I was so little that I don’t remember.”

At 13 years of age, Rudaina was a pre-schooler when her family fled Syria and crossed the border into Jordan. She lives only 37 kilometres now from her home country but, ten years into the war, it feels a million miles away.

What started as a temporary refuge is now a ‘city’ in a desert with 80,000 residents, over half of them children. Za’atari refugee camp has evolved into a thriving city with distinct neighbourhoods, schools, hospitals, a vibrant economy, a vast clean water network, wastewater treatment plants, and buzzing markets where locals can grab a shawarma, repair their bicycle or buy the latest fashion. 

At UNICEF, our response has had to evolve with the protracted nature of this humanitarian crisis. Child friendly tents providing emergency psychosocial support have evolved to a network of community-led Makani centres providing integrated learning, child protection and youth skills. Each one managed by a Syrian refugee – incredibly smart men and women who were teachers and lawyers before the war. 

What children need to learn has evolved too. It has become critical to delivering future-ready skills to refugee children to prepare them for the new digital and climate-resilient global economy. Across Jordan, our teams are delivering basic and advanced digital skills, providing opportunities to youth for microwork, teaching robotics and innovation, supporting green social enterprises and growing the next generation of entrepreneurs. 

Although the camp was never meant to be here almost a decade later, life has continued at a fast pace. Up to 300 babies are born in Za’atari every month. We have already passed the milestone where every first grader starting school was born here and soon only those who have graduated will remember life outside its perimeter fence.

It’s not a life anyone would wish for any boy or girl growing up, but the community has made the most of what they’ve been given to keep pushing forward, motivated by the desire to provide a better future for their children. 

When I met the adoring parents of Isra’a, they told me that they had been married ten years without a child, but their bond always remained strong due to their love for each other. And then one day their miracle baby arrived.

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This year, amid a global pandemic, Isra’a started preschool and her mother was overjoyed to find out that another baby is on the way. It gave me so much pleasure to tell her that I too was expecting my first child and to share that joyous moment with her. It made me reflect too on where our children will be in ten years and how different will their lives be based on the circumstance of their birthplace.

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the coping mechanism of refugees in Jordan to the extreme – reducing household income, increasing negative ways of coping including child labour and more debt, and creating a learning crisis for those vulnerable children who have no digital access.

In Za’atari, UNICEF has observed an increase in child marriage due to the crisis, with devastating consequences for the girls and their education. Families called this winter the worst one yet. For many, it has brought back traumatic feelings of fleeing Syria – the last time they felt so scared and unsafe.  

The devastating impact has been felt too by their Jordanian neighbours who continue to show overwhelming support for refugees despite the challenging economic times. They remind us what generosity and solidarity can look like – even including refugees at the front of the national Covid-19 vaccination rollout.

Sometimes the most challenging part of my job is talking to young people in the camp as they transition from childhood to adulthood, seeing their disappointment and anger as their high ambitions and talent are not met by the opportunities afforded to them by the world outside.

We have invested in keeping them safe, healthy, protected and educated for ten years – they just need the world not to turn away from a generation of children at this critical point in their lives when they have so much to give back.

Visit unicef.ie for more information.

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