The devastating conflict in the Syria has forced one million children to flee their homes. Eight-year-old Aya is one of them.
Her smile is contagious. Her energy is infectious. She’s playful, she’s sporty, she’s talented.
Eight-year-old Aya loves to talk, she loves to sing and she loves to learn. Every day, she takes lessons in reading and writing from her older sister Essaf in the makeshift tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley – a valley crowded by a steady stream of Syrian refugees – that’s been their home for far too long.
An education on hold
“Aya is the only one of my children who hasn’t been educated, along with my daughter who is disabled. All the others were educated,” explains Aya’s father Mohamed. As a matter of fact, Essaf has an undergraduate degree in Computer Science.
“I want to be a doctor so I can help children,” she says. “If they come to see me and they don’t have money, I will give them medicine, a prescription and an injection so they can get better.”
Aya was able to go to school in Lebanon briefly, but the transportation cost of US$20 per month was unaffordable for the family. Her brothers work in vegetable fields to help them get by, but they rely heavily on the food vouchers provided by UNHCR. Aya is left with no choice but to stay home.
A shameful milestone
The number of Syrian children like Aya forced to flee their homes has now reached one million. “The majority of these children are under 11 years of age,” said UNICEF Ireland Executive Director Peter Power. “When they reach the border they are exhausted and urgently require water, food, shelter and medical care.
“UNICEF is doing the best we can for children but this is the largest humanitarian crisis in history and our ability to deliver lifesaving services is rapidly diminishing as the numbers grow. The conflict in Syria has already claimed the lives of thousands of children – the future of millions more hangs in the balance.”
Children fleeing, children targeted
It’s a failure of colossal proportions. Children make up more than half of all refugees from the Syrian conflict. More than 768,000 Syrian child refugees are under the age of 11.
Most have arrived in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. More than 3,500 of these children have crossed the borders either unaccompanied or separated from their families.
Children trapped in the Syrian Arab Republic have been targets of horrific violence. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, some 7,000 children have been killed during the conflict. More than 2 million children have been internally displaced within the Syrian Arab Republic.
On 21 August, children were among those reported to have been killed by alleged use of chemical weapons near Damascus. “The reports of attacks on civilians, presumably including children, on the outskirts of Damascus are deeply disturbing. Children must be protected, and those who fail to protect them will be held accountable,” said UNICEF.
One of one million
UNICEF and UNHCR have been supporting millions of affected families since the war broke out. From birth registration, vaccinations, sanitation and education to health facilities, the agencies have mobilized resources to reach those in need. More than 222,000 people have been provided with water supplies, nearly 167,000 refugee children have received psychosocial assistance and more than 118,000 children have been able to maintain their education inside and out of formal schools.
This is an enormous humanitarian operation. And it’s not enough. More and more children become refugees every day, and host countries are straining.
Aya is just 8 years old now. Soon, she will begin to question her situation. She is one of a million children who have yet to comprehend the consequences of their loss, one of one million Syrian child refugees.
To donate to UNICEF Ireland’s work with Syrian children, please visit www.unicef.ie/syria
Reporting from Lebanon is Priyanka Pruthi, UNICEF, 22 August 2013