Ala’a is 15 and lived in the besieged city of Homs until two years ago. He was out playing with friends when an explosion - thought to be an Assad bomb - threw him across the street and changed his life forever.
Pure adrenaline meant that, strangely, he got up and walked in the moments after the blast. But the truth is he had sustained a serious spinal injury and, after an infection took hold, he was left unable to walk. He remembers nothing but a flash and suffering ‘a fever’ from which his legs did not recover.
HuffPost reporters met Ala’a at Azraq camp, where he now lives with thousands of other refugee children in Jordan. He spends every day at the Unicef Makani centre and plays football, table tennis and chess. He is whip-smart with a cheeky grin and a nervous laugh.
He longs to walk again, he told our reporters, but his deepest desire is to return to Syria as a fully-trained engineer ready to play his part in rebuilding his home.
Today we launch our Christmas appeal to raise money for children like Ala’a whose lives have been permanently changed by the Syrian war. Our reporters spent last week across the border from Syria in Jordan seeing the very human impact of a war that has now lasted seven years.
They met dozens of Syrian children, their parents, doctors and aid workers trying desperately to help them. They saw how children, given the chance and the right support, can be incredibly resilient after witnessing atrocities. But they also met others who won’t ever live lives that aren’t haunted by the brutality, bombings, chaos and the loss they have experienced.
Seven years is a whole childhood for many of those children. Some have never known peace or stability; others can remember and mourn happier times. Asked what they want for the future, most told our reporters that they just wanted to go home to Syria.
It’s very difficult for journalists to safely report from inside Syria. But if the principle aim of journalism is to expose injustice, hold the powerful to account, and focus the world’s attention on those who need it most, we need to tell the most difficult stories. We have worked with Unicef to get footage of life inside Syria and travelled to the refugee camps where those affected now live, to report on the effects of seven years of war on a generation of Syrian children.
We hope our reporting will remind people of a dire situation that risks being forgotten. This year has seen the most number of emergency appeals by international charities ever. With the Rohingya Muslim crisis, the Caribbean hurricane disaster and the food shortages in East Africa, South Sudan and Lake Chad, as well as the horrific humanitarian disaster in Yemen, never has there been more need for charity.
We chose Syria because there is a risk that people will forget about a crisis that has been around for seven years now. The money we raise will all go to Unicef, which, as a UN agency, has among the best access to those areas in Syria that are badly affected. Unicef is also helping children in neighbouring countries who now live almost permanently in refugee camps. In the winter months, they face freezing conditions in the camps. Our reporters saw how the agency can make a difference to children’s lives now, if it has the money.
In total 8.5million children are affected by the Syrian war. Outside Syria, 2.5million children are now living as refugees in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Six million children are inside Syria and in need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly three million of those are in hard to reach areas or living under siege – almost completely cut off from humanitarian aid.
In the past week there have been reports of what life is like in those areas. Unicef found that nearly 12% of under-fives in East Ghouta in Damascus are acutely malnourished. In January this year that figure stood at 2.1%.
A third of the children covered in the study are stunted, elevating their risk of delayed development, illness and death. Acute malnutrition rates are highest among very young children. Mothers of children under two years old have reportedly reduced or stopped breastfeeding altogether because of their own poor nutrition and the constant violence. It is just too desperate to imagine.
Over the next month, through the Christmas and New Year period, we will tell the story of the children affected by the Syrian war. Our journalism will shine a light on their lives – the tragedy as well as the breathtaking heroism of children we saw. We want to tell their stories, to help give them a voice and focus attention on the most vulnerable victims of a war that refuses to go away. Please give generously.