A forsaken generation?

The world must act to save a generation of traumatised, isolated and suffering Syrian children from catastrophe. If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war.UNHCR, November 2013

In November 2013, UNHCR released a sobering report about the suffering of the 1.1 million Syrian child refugees in neighbouring countries. Its one shortcoming: it doesn’t talk about the children still inside Syria. In fact, very little is ever heard about the children still in Syria, because neither journalists nor INGOs can work there: they can’t get permission, and it’s too dangerous. Very few people know what’s going on inside Syria because it’s so hard to get in, hard to survive once you’re in, and even harder to get information out. But we know a lot of it, because we have teams working inside Syria. And what we see is devastation: of a country, of communities, of families, and of children’s pasts, presents and futures.

BBC Panorama: Saving Syria’s Children

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Watch the BBC Panorama programme programme Saving Syria’s Children, which features the work of Hand in Hand for Syria.

It all began with a child

In April 2011, a 13-year-old boy, Hamza Al Khattib, sprayed revolutionary graffiti on the walls of his school in Dara’a. He and his friends were detained by security forces for interrogation. A month later, his tortured and mutilated body was returned to his family by the security forces. It marked a turning point: people were outraged by the way a child had been treated. Hamza’s death sparked mass protests calling for democratic change and freedom of speech.

Death, execution & torture

According to Oxford Research Group in November 2013, 11,420 Syrian children have been killed in the conflict. 70% died from explosions and 25% from gunfire. 764 were summarily executed, and 389 shot by snipers. 128 were killed in the chemical attacks in Ghouta in August 2013. 112 were tortured — including infants as young as one year old. And it’s still happening.

Displacement & loss of protection

Huge numbers of children have been forced to leave home far behind. Some families send their unaccompanied children over the border in the hope of finding safety. Also, when women and children are permitted to flee besieged areas, their men are often made to remain behind: many husbands and fathers are never seen again. In the chaos of fleeing, vast numbers of children are orphaned or separated from one or both parents. Untold thousands are trying to survive without the protection of family.

Loss of learning & play

Very few children attend school in Syria because there are now very few schools or teachers. They’re forgetting how to read, how to live with routine, and how to play — in fact, they’re forgetting how to be children. Missing out on childhood simply stores up problems for the future, to be piled on top of all the other problems these children will face as they grow up.

Risk of abuse

Children in a conflict zone grow up fast, yet they don’t have the experience or resources they need to protect themselves. Many suffer sexual and physical violence, and some are recruited into fighting.

Malnutrition & starvation

Children of all ages are dying of starvation in Syria. Orphaned infants, and those whose mothers are too traumatised or malnourished to feed them, have no access to breast milk and, since formula is no longer available or has become unaffordable in many parts of Syria, desperate carers resort to feeding them grass and cooled herbal tea.

Disease

Crowded and unsanitary conditions already breed diseases like hepatitis A, tuberculosis, typhoid, and cholera. Malnourished children can put up little resistance. The collapse of vaccination programmes leaves children wide open to life-threatening disease: in 2013, our medics diagnosed the first case of polio in Syria since 1999 (it is now spreading), and measles is also spreading. Even ‘everyday’ health issues, such as asthma and diabetes, are now very difficult to manage. With few doctors, few hospitals and very few medicines, there is little help for any child who gets sick. Many have suffered the loss of limbs; others have lost their hearing in explosions; others have lost their sight through shrapnel wounds.

Psychological trauma

The effect of the conflict on Syrian children is almost beyond description. Some have seen their families killed before their eyes, and have had to bury them. They’ve been shot at and blown up by their own government. Thousands display horrific physical scars; all of them bear invisible trauma and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Huge numbers of children exhibit hyperactivity or severe withdrawal; they are depressed and anxious.

How we’re helping Syria’s children

  • We’re the first charity to have opened dedicated children’s hospitals inside Syria. They handle all of the common childhood illnesses and offer vital vaccinations.
  • At our women’s unit, we have dedicated obstetricians and midwives to help women through the latter stages of their pregnancy and childbirth, and all of our hospitals have obstetric theatres providing C-section facilities which are otherwise impossible to access. This all helps improve survival rates for both mothers and their babies.
  • Since premature births have increased exponentially, our children’s hospitals are equipped with neonatal units. We also put incubators and paediatricians into all of our general hospitals so that these babies have a chance of survival.
  • Although we believe that ‘breast is best’, the fact is that without supplies of formula milk, many babies have no chance of survival. We take formula milk into Syria and hand it out in targeted way; you can find out more on our FAQs page.
  • We’re helping to reclaim children’s literacy and education in the face of extremely low school attendance.
  • We’re starting up a programme to offer support to orphans — more information coming soon.

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