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Syria: Children Are Country's Lost Generation As Charities Struggle To Provide Education For Traumatised Youth

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SYRIA
Syrian children take refuge at the Samiya al-Makhzumi school in Mezzeh neighborhood in Damascus | AP

Life used to be very different for Syrian children starting the school year, more than 18 months ago, before the bloody conflict tore apart their families, homes and neighbourhoods.

This year, children from rich and poor families, from both sides of the conflict and from all corners of the country, are probably starting school in different circumstances.

Their schools are used as shelters or bases for fighting. Those who will start the school year at all this month may be in a different country such as Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey, in refugee camps or makeshift schools run by NGOs doing what they can.

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Syrian teacher Abu al-Fattah gives a lesson to children at an improvised school in the town of Azaz, on the border with Turkey

There are an estimated 470,000 children and young people affected by the crisis, making up around 50% of all displaced Syrians.

In Lebanon, around 1,500 Syrian primary school children will begin the new academic year studying in Lebanese schools after their families fled the bloodshed at home, according to the Associated Press.

Many attend 10 of the Lebanese schools along the country's northern frontier with Syria, seven of them run by an organisation with close links to Jamaa Islamiya, an Islamic group supportive of the rebels in Syria and the Muslim brotherhood.

But Syrian teachers are in short supply, and there are believed to be at least 30,000 children afed between five and 17 in Lebanon, who are not being schooled.

British charity War Child have staff working on the ground in Lebanon, hoping to give scarred child "a routine and a sense of normality."

The charity has built six 'Safe Spaces' in schools in northern Lebanon, offering counselling to 300 children, and are planning to begin offering educational 'catch-up lessons' to those who have fled.

Francisca Guzman, who works for War Child's mission in Lebanon, told The Huffington Post UK: "The school year is just starting, and those arriving in Lebanon now can register to enter the public school system. This has been such a hard-fought battle with the Lebanese government and we're so delighted that they agreed to do this.

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A child in Syria looks horrified at his injuries, one of many wounded in the violence

"But there are still so many obstacles. Many of the refugees arriving here want to remain invisible, they want to keep their children close, they don't want to give their details to the authorities in order to register their children for schools, and they are scared they will be targeted.

"And the education system in Lebanon is mostly in French, which makes it inaccessible to many Syrian children."

War Child stresses that although food, water, safety and shelter are essential for aid agencies to provide to refugees, education is a lower priority, but is just as crucial to prevent a lost Syrian generation, and provide any hope for the future of the country.

Guzman told The Huffington Post UK: "Since the uprising started, schools have been being closed down. And children now see their schools being used as detention centres where people are tortured, as military depots, or destroyed by shelling.

"Most schools have been closed for the last year. Even if schools were open, most parents wouldn't let their children leave the house.

"We know from experience that if children are out of school for more than a year, they are very unlikely to ever go back.

"Very young children will be forced to work. we have to try and make people understand that if they want to make a difference in the future of Syria as a country, education is so important. Otherwise there will be a whole generation of traumatised, uneducated young people."

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A Free Syria Army fighter carries a baby in Aleppo, the only surviving member of a family

But for many children left in Syria, or in squalid refugee camps, education is barely given a fleeting thought. Many are badly traumatised from witnessing killings, torture and other atrocities in the country's conflict.

War Child estimates that by July 2012, around 1300 children have been killed, with 49 children were massacred in one incident alone.

There have been an estimated 635 children put into detention centres,where torture has been repeatedly testified and girls and boys as young as 12 have been
sexually abused.

Harrowing testimony collected from refugees in Save the Children projects reveals that youngsters have been the target of brutal attacks, seen the deaths of parents, siblings and other children, and have witnessed and experienced torture.

Wael, 16, one of the refugees who Save The Children spoke to, said: “I knew a boy called Ala’a. He was only six years old. He didn’t understand what was happening. I’d say that six-year-old boy was tortured more than anyone else in the room.

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A Syrian child is seen with her family who fled from the Syrian town of Qusair near Homs, at the Lebanese-Syrian border village of Qaa, eastern Lebanon

"He wasn’t given food water for three days, and he was so weak he used to faint all the time. He was beaten regularly. I watched him die. He only survived for three days and then he simply died. He was terrified all the time. They treated his body as though he was a dog.”

Like many charities, Save the Children and War Child have been refused permission to enter Syria to help more children but much of the children's testimony corroborates violations documented by the United Nations and human rights organisations in recent months.

Many children have been so emotionally scarred, that they have started self-harming, suffering from nightmares, bedwetting and depression.

Guzman told The Huffington Post UK: "All of the children we see have emotional or behavioural difficulties. It's amazing how strong they are when they have been through so much. But the displacement has really affected them."

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A Syrian boy receives treatment after he was wounded when shells, released by a regime force's helicopter, hit his house in Syria's northern city of Aleppo

One 11-year-old girl saw her best friend shot through the head by a sniper through the window, as they played in their home, and felt the blood splatter onto her face. "She wants to talk about it all the time, it is clearly had such a damaging impact."

Many have seen parents or siblings die slowly from injuries, with the family unable to get them medical care. Others have seen their mothers and sisters raped.

"But here are always inspiring stories," Guzman added. "One girl told me she wants to be a lawyer, she is very determined she wants to help people who are in prison.

"Two boys have told me they are determined to become doctors, after what they have seen. You see their strength and resilience."

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Ali, 12, lives with his family in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. He is currently living in a tent with his mother, father and brothers

We left Syria because of the shelling. Every night I’d wake up scared. I’d rather die here than die in Syria. They broke into houses. They stole things from our house, and broke the doors, broke our things. They even stole our food while we were in the basement. In my place, you’d commit suicide from what we’ve seen.

My cousins, a 17-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, died because of the shelling. It destroyed their home. My cousin’s wife who also died had a newborn baby. Who’ll take care of her? She also had another three young children.

Whenever I heard shelling, I was so scared. I remembered my cousins, and I cried. When I looked at where their house used to be, I felt very sad.

The day my cousins died, the shelling carried on continuously.As I was leaving to head home, two shells were thrown.

The first one destroyed my cousin’s house and the second one destroyed a mosque in the village. I ran, I was so scared.

I just hid in a phone booth. Then I went out on the street and called for my mother. More shells fell and I was scared.

Most were stuck in schools. Many schools were targeted. So much shelling took place there. My second cousin also got injured – he’s eight years old. He was in his house which is next to the school, and he was injured.

Omar came separately here to this camp, and I was asking everyone where he was. I walked around looking for him, looking in every tent, and then I saw him running towards me. I was so happy.

The things I’ve seen have made me strong. You can’t even imagine what I’ve seen, and what Syria has seen. When the armed men came for the first time to our house, I was so afraid.

I miss my neighbourhood the most. And I miss the air. It’s different, not like here. I miss the people, my friends. We used to go walking – there’s a train station that we would walk to each day, I miss doing that. I used to play football and go to the park and go on trips with my school.

I love school. We used to hang out there under the trees, whenever we didn’t want to play sports. My cousin and I were the most popular at our school. Our teachers were great.

I’m so sad now that I don’t go to school. It makes me want to go back to Syria, so I can get back into school.

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