THE figures make you numb. More than 200,000 Syrians killed. At least three million Syrian children are no longer in school.
More than 10 million Syrians, almost half the population, have been forced to flee their homes, many to neighbouring countries.
Ten million — that’s roughly equivalent to emptying Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane of its people.
That’s why I am back in the region: to remind myself of the human face of this brutal war.
Faces like 11-year-old Leila* from Syria, whom I visited in Chatila, a Palestinian refugee camp in south Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon may be a tiny country but it has the highest number of refugees per capita of any country in the world. One in four people living in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.
Syrian refugees have been drawn to Chatila because of its cheap housing. It may be cheap but the population of the already overcrowded camp has more than doubled with the arrival of many thousands of refugees since the start of the conflict.
The housing is very poor. Leila and her family occupy a few rooms constructed on top of pre-existing buildings.
It doesn’t meet any kind of building standards. There are deaths from electrocution there every week because electrical wires and water pipes are strung together between houses.
The staircase looks like it might collapse at any moment and there are stains in the ceiling from leaks when it rains.
Before arriving here, Leila had been out of school for more than three years. Early on in the conflict, her school in Syria was taken over by armed groups as a base. A place of learning and safety had become another staging post in the devastating civil war.
Her home was also destroyed by the fighting and the family spent three years moving from house to house. Finally, the violence became too much and they fled to Lebanon, travelling for days to reach safety.
After so much time out of the classroom, the good news is that Leila is now attending a local school with about 400 other children. It’s funded by a grant from the Australian Government, part of an initiative called No Lost Generation.
But because children have missed so much of their education, many are not able to read and write, despite being old enough to be in grades 4 and 5. Those children can at least attend special catch-up classes to get them back on track as quickly as possible.
The children are so eager to learn that they even look forward to extra classes that are held on Saturdays to help make up for their lost years of school.
While Leila and her family have been through ordeals beyond the comprehension of most Australians, in many ways they are the lucky ones.
The head teacher at the school told me there were more than 400 children on the waiting list to join classes. As I left, I passed a Syrian father and his two children on the stairs. They had come to add their names to the waiting list.
But down in the crowded streets, teenage boys were working to earn enough money to cover the cost of rent, electricity and food. I doubt their names are on any waiting list.
Later in the day, I visited the Bekaa Valley where most of Lebanon’s Syrian refugees live. Far from the mild Mediterranean coastal areas, it’s now very cold there and the mountainous areas are covered in snow.
Unlike Leila, almost all the Syrians in the valley are living in tents or makeshift shelters. And access to any form of education is even more limited. While Save the Children and other agencies are working against the clock to provide families with access to adequate shelter and protection, funding is drying up as the conflict drags on and the world’s attention turns elsewhere.
This year more than 600,000 refugee children and their families in Lebanon will face a bitter winter of subzero temperatures, freezing rain and snow. And winter’s onset coincides with a funding crisis for humanitarian aid in the region. Just as already vulnerable families find themselves in even greater need, the World Food Program is struggling to keep its food aid program running. And still more refugees cross the border. They have escaped the war but they can’t escape the cold and hunger.
Until a political settlement to the Syrian conflict is achieved, we must do everything we can to keep people housed, fed and clothed, and to keep children in school.
Without our help, children like Leila, who should be Syria’s future, are at grave risk of becoming its lost generation.
PAUL RONALDS IS CEO OF SAVE THE CHILDREN AUSTRALIA. NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT IDENTITIES. DONATE TO SAVE THE CHILDREN’S NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND APPEAL AT SAVETHECHILDREN.ORG.AU
Source: Herald Sun
Image Source: Syrian refugees attend school at a camp in Lebanon (Credit: Herald Sun).