A lost generation, Donncha O’Callaghan on the one million Syrian child refugees

UNICEF Ireland Ambassador Donncha O’Callaghan meets Syrian children including 4-year old Mohmoud and his 5-year old sister Kawthar at a tented settlement near the Lebanese-Syrian border. Photo UNICEF/2013/Stedman

I imagine I was just one of many people in Cork deeply upset by the images of children lying dead in their homes in Syria which was all over our newspapers and TV screens this week. I first saw the photos on Twitter and was compelled to share my feelings of horror straight away. I know that the situation in Syria is a complex one but, for me, there is a simple message worth repeating – these are innocent children and must be protected. It’s easy to feel helpless but there are four million children who need our help right now and we can do something about that.

It is an issue that is close to home for me as a father of two beautiful girls and as a UNICEF Ireland Ambassador, which led to me travelling to Lebanon in June to meet children who have fled the crisis in Syria. I’ve been privileged to visit countries all over the world in my role as Ambassador for the children’s organisation since 2009 but nothing could have prepared me for the suffering I encountered two kilometres from the Syrian border where we met families who were forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on their back.

We visited one makeshift settlement on the side of a road where a number of families had just recently arrived. They had no toilets or drinking water so the children were getting very sick. I was shocked when a mother gave me her baby girl Aisha to hold, who is the same age as my own daughter Anna, and I could barely feel her weight in my arms. Her wrists were so tiny and you could see the bones sticking out of her chest. The entire family had no option but to drink dirty water and as a result Aisha’s health was seriously deteriorating and she was suffering from diarrhoea. There is very little dignity in these camps. They had no provisions, not even a nappy – instead she was left with no choice but to wear a plastic bag. I knew her mother would have done anything to make her better.

Luckily, UNICEF was able to respond immediately, organising a medical team and emergency food for the children. The staff on the ground, including Ettie Higgins from Cork, are brilliant, so dedicated. UNICEF was in Syria before the crisis and will remain there when it, hopefully, comes to an end. The hot temperatures during these summer months are putting more children’s lives in danger as walking four or five hours in 45 degree heat to cross the border means they arrive exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. Some children are alone without any parent or guardian and need special protection. Even after surviving war some children in the camps face the risk of exploitation.

Meeting young children like Aisha was an incredible experience. It was tough to see parents struggle to keep their children healthy and safe in such desperate conditions. When we visited a play centre run by UNICEF, it was great to see kids just being kids. Their laughter reminds you of their innocence but you can still see the fear in their eyes. When they sit down with UNICEF staff in safe spaces they draw pictures of bombs and dead bodies, some have nightmares or tremble when planes fly over, others have the physical scars on their bodies. One young boy was at home in Syria when his house was shelled. He didn’t get out in time and suffered first degree burns all over his body and face. He was so traumatised that he couldn’t speak a word. I couldn’t help but compare him with my own daughter who is three years old and never stops talking, never stops asking questions. What they have been through is unimaginable.

Without our help, a lost generation of Syrian children will grow up angry and illiterate. Like all children, they need to feel safe, understood and loved. It is also really important that they can return to school and continue with their education. It will be up to them to rebuild their country when a solution to the crisis is found. It really put everything into perspective for me, how lucky we are to live our lives and do the things we love in a safe environment. I’m glad to be in a position to come back to Ireland and tell people what life is like for the Syrian people – I feel a duty to the children and families I met. One young boy I met said to me “You’ll go home and my situation won’t change. What hope is there for me?” I was lost for words at the time but now I know that we can act to save innocent lives and give them hope for the future.

I’ve never felt so responsible to get a message across and I hope people reading this will understand why. On Friday UNICEF Ireland announced the shocking fact that one million children have been forced to flee their homes because of this crisis. Even though children continue to suffer when they cross the border and become refugees, they are still the lucky ones who have escaped with their lives. I’m asking people to help if they can. I’ve seen with my own eyes that even a small donation goes a long way to restoring a child’s dignity and can give them hope for the future.”

UNICEF is in Syria and the surrounding regions helping 4 million children. To make a donation to UNICEF Ireland’s Appeal visit www.unicef.ie/Syria Lo-call 1850 767 999 or send by post to UNICEF Ireland, 33 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin 1.

This opinion piece was originally published in the Cork Evening Echo on Monday, 26 August 2013.