I remember standing at the border between northern Lebanon and Syria in March of 2011, watching a steady stream of women and children carrying whatever belongings they could manage, walking across the border in search of safety. Their lives had changed in an instant.
When the conflict in Syria
began, I was working as the Emergency Director for World Vision Lebanon. The women I spoke to in those early days told me this was just a temporary relocation until the protests calmed down and they would return home.
10 years later
, the dream of a return home, a return to normal, has yet to materialize for Syrian children and families who have been forced to flee their homes. 10 years of relentless fear, anxiety, lack of access to education, health care, clean water. 10 years of economic uncertainty, food shortages, loss of loved ones and near constant fear of violence.
When home is no longer a safe place
Across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has changed life as we know it, almost in an instant again. For the first time many of us in Canada experienced shortages at the grocery store. I remember visiting almost every store in my community searching for flour, so that I could maintain my family’s Saturday morning crepe tradition. And who can forget searching for toilet paper?
The fear and anxiety I felt in those first few weeks of lock down was substantial. Confined to our home, attempting to keep my 12-year-old son occupied, without allowing him to play video games all day. All while trying to work from home, leading World Vision Canada’s humanitarian team as we grappled with how we would respond to this global crisis.
At the time I made the difficult decision to call back my team members who were working abroad in Sudan, Indonesia and Cyprus, knowing that being home was the safest place for them.
Yet, for the last 10 years Syrian families have had to make the heartbreaking decision to leave their homes. The one place that should have been a safe haven was no longer safe for them to stay.
Farida, 35, fled Northeastern Syria with her three children after she lost her husband in the conflict. "I left Syria because everything was gone. There is safety in the camp. But after COVID-19 our situation became worse. My children, their future is gone. The most important thing is school." She dreams of one day returning home to Syria and visiting the grave of her husband. (Photo: Shayan Nuradeen)
Nearly 12 million Syrians, half the population, have been forced from their homes, displaced inside their own country or across its borders. Today, Syria is one of the worst places in the world to be a child. Around 600,000 people, including 55,000 children have been killed, and a child’s life expectancy has been reduced by 13 years.
Those numbers are so hard to wrap our heads around. And yet, for the Syrian families who have lost loved ones in this conflict, those numbers represent mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children, taken from their families well before it was their time. The grief those numbers represent is unbearable.
Glimpses of hope
In September this year, I anxiously sent my son back to school, with three masks, a carefully prepared lunch with a note of encouragement and strict instructions to wash his hands and stay six feet away from everyone, all in an attempt to keep him safe. I spent most of the day worried about him, hoping he was taking the necessary precautions, praying that he would come home safely and not be exposed to COVID-19.
For Syrian parents, the worry that their children may not return home from school is an ever-present fear. At least 1,435 schools and hospitals have been attacked in Syria, preventing children from accessing the most basic rights of healthcare and education.
As excited as my son was to return to in-person school in September, it doesn’t even begin to compare to the excitement I saw in 10-year-old Mohammad, a boy I met on one of my last visits to an informal settlement of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. He had just returned from his first day at a World Vision supported accelerated learning program. Mohammad had been out of school for three years, after his family fled violence in Syria. He told me that he had lost all hope for his future, and yet on the day I met him, he also told me that his return to school meant that he could once again dream of better days.
World Vision recently released a report, Too high a price to pay: the cost of conflict for Syria’s children,
which investigates the impact that 10 years of war has had on Syria’s economic growth and on its human capital, with a specific focus on Syria’s children. This is accompanied by a survey of almost 400 Syrian children and young adults living in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan revealing the tremendous human costs of this conflict in their own words.
Every child interviewed appealed for one thing; peace.
As we look forward to an end of the COVID-19 pandemic and a summer season that will surely feel more normal than we have experienced in months, I hope that we will remember how connected COVID-19 has made us around the world. I hope that we will recognize that just like our children, Syrian girls and boys have a right to a peaceful future, a right to return to school, to dream of better days ahead.
Help Syria's children
Lindsay Gladding is World Vision Canada’s Director of Fragile and Humanitarian Programs. With more than a decade of experience in diverse humanitarian and emergency settings, she has deployed to emergencies around the world including Haiti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe and Niger. Lindsay spent 15 months with World Vision Lebanon as the Humanitarian Director, establishing World Vision’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. She is a strong gender equality advocate and has served as a contract faculty member in humanitarian and development studies at Western University and Humber College. Lindsay holds an MA in Human Security and Peacebuilding at Royal Roads University, a Post-Graduate Diploma in International Project Management from Humber College, a BA in Socio-Cultural Studies from Western University, and a Diploma in Community Development from Brescia University College.