Childhood Under Assault
Part 9: Shames, Syria
Girls and boys deserve to grow up free from abuse, exploitation and violence. But in the world’s most dangerous places, childhood is frequently the first casualty. Here is Shames’ story, the ninth in our 10-part series.
“I’d like to help build my country again.”
This month, seventeen-year-old girls across Canada head out the door to their proms and graduations. High school is over! Who can tell what wonders the future holds?
Shames, too, might have experienced a graduation this month, had things not gone so tragically wrong at home in Syria. Life had begun unravelling in 2011, when she was just nine – the country’s bloody conflict has raged throughout her childhood.
Shames didn’t have all the field trips, sleepovers, school plays and math contests most Canadian girls enjoy. The war has dominated and defined her growing up. It has wiped out chats about boys, fashion and movies. Conversations have shifted to danger, scarcity and how best to remain alive.
The war has turned Shames into a kind of struggling single parent. Except as a refugee
in Lebanon, she receives no government benefits. She has few job opportunities.
And she’s looking after her own mother.
Shames is Arabic for ‘the sun’…the source of life, warmth and comfort. To her mother, Shames is all these things. For years, there has been no other source.
“Our house was completely destroyed in the war,” the girl remembers. “I lost my friends, my relatives. Most importantly, my father left us.”
She doesn’t say how this happened. Over the eight years of war in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Some have simply disappeared. Many things can be borne, many problems confronted, if a family remains close together. But that wasn’t possible for Shames.
Gradually, Shames, her mother and her younger siblings began making their way to Lebanon. This was no Greyhound bus trip with washrooms and WiFi. There were no pitstops at Timmies, or nights at the Comfort Inn.
“The journey was so hard,” Shames recalls. “We slept on the streets. It was awful.” These few words of summary can barely scratch the surface. Imagine the cold, hard ground. Hungry mornings of blank despair.
Screams and gunfire too close within earshot.
Shames pressed on with her family, certain that a beautiful life awaited them once they escaped the brutal horrors of Syria.
Two years later, Shames has yet to find that beautiful reality. She’s discovered that life as a refugee
is a whole new struggle for survival.
They sleep in a tent-like structure on the open plains of Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. The mountains are above them. Below their feet, the ground is fertile – wonderful for farming. Yet there are painful ironies here.
“We are always short on food,” Shames told World Vision staff. “Always. And we don’t receive any food assistance or financial support at all.”
Syrian families in Lebanon sometimes receive food transfers and cash assistance from aid organizations, including the United Nations. But as the refugee population and needs increase, so does the gap between funds needed and funds available for the humanitarian response. There’s just not enough to go around.
This makes qualifying for cash assistance increasingly difficult. Syrian families where no one can work would be likelier candidates than Shames’. Especially if that family has additional challenges, like high medical bills or a member with a disability.
So, both daughter and mother labour as much as they can, doing whatever they can. Shames fears the work is much harder on her mother than on herself.
“I always worry about my mother’s health, but not mine,” says Shames. “I can manage. But I want her to be safe and healthy.”
It’s the opposite of ‘child support’ here in Canada. In this refugee family, it’s the child who feels the pressure to do much of the supporting.
That desire to protect her mother is completely understandable.
Having lost one parent, the idea of losing the other would be terrifying for any child. Especially as a seventeen-year-old refugee in a strange land with younger siblings to support.
Due to the many restrictions facing Syrian refugees working in Lebanon, most are limited to areas like agriculture.
Yet women earn just six dollars a day – half what men do – for jobs such as back-breaking labour in the potato fields. And they’re typically offered no more than 12 days’ employment per month.
Many Syrian refugee families residing in these tent-like structures pay the equivalent of $70 CDN a month for rent, and another $60 for electricity. Without power, the nights are very dark and the winters dangerously cold.
Their costs far outstrip their earnings. And it’s getting worse with time.
“We have spent all our savings just surviving in Lebanon,” says Shames. “And now we have a lot of debt. I don’t have a stable job…no regular source of income. Yet there are so many expenses.”
Nearly a million Syrians struggle to survive in Lebanon. Photo: Jon Warren
“We’ve lost all our possessions, including all our extra clothes and precious belongings,” says Shames. The present can feel very empty. They are banking on the possibility of a brighter future. That’s what hope is all about.
A series of surprises
That bright future has seemed a long way off. But recently, something unexpected happened that nudged it a little closer.
“World Vision offered me the chance to attend vocational training courses in agriculture,” says Shames.
“They’re giving me new skills, so I can have a job when we go back to Syria.”
Is it the field she would have chosen? Shames doesn’t say. Given her dogged determination to care for her mother, it could be she’s carefully buried any childhood dreams deep down in her heart.
Yet surprisingly, despite her grueling initiation to farming on the plains of Bekaa Valley, Shames is discovering she enjoys agricultural study.
“I have discovered that I love this field,” she says. “I am taking lessons in class, learning techniques in agriculture, then applying the theories learned in the field. World Vision will help me learn to build a career and help my mother in the future.”
The class has a benefit Shames couldn’t have predicted. She’s discovered, by meeting other young people and hearing their struggles, that she’s not alone in the world. She doesn’t have to bear it by herself.
Big job, young shoulders
Shames and her classmates are confronting challenges they never dreamed of as children. And together, they’re reclaiming a stake in futures they’d feared were lost forever.
“When I go back to my country, I would like to help in building it again,” says Shames. “But also, maybe, I will go back to school and proceed with my studies. Education is still my ambition.”
Rebuilding Syria is an honourable goal, especially for young people who’ve been dragged down by every horrific chapter of its demise. It’s also a task that, in many ways, sits squarely on their young shoulders.
What is the world doing to come alongside young people like Shames? How are we protecting their childhoods, keeping them safe and honouring their rights to fun, laughter, learning and peaceful dreams?
Shames never asked for a senior prom, a summer vacation or a university scholarship. But she does want opportunity. She wants to learn, to contribute, to care for those she loves.
To participate in rebuilding her country someday.
We want to help young people like Shames’ fulfill their ambitions – live their dreams instead of their nightmares. Will you join us?
Global poverty is in retreat but has become more concentrated in the world’s darkest places. Over the next decade, more than 80 per cent of the world’s poorest children and families will live in the most dangerous places where lives and futures are threatened by conflict and disaster. Join the movement and take action against injustice. Learn how you can help.
Photos by Josephine Haddad