Homs, Syria: You don't have to drive too far to see signs of destruction and devastation. The thundering sound of shelling is part of everyday life here. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have had to flee their homes from many parts of Homs in search for safety.
In collective shelters for displaced families, in quieter parts of the city, I witnessed grief over life that has been lost. I met families who have lost their belongings and a more dignified life. Many displaced families have to share rooms in old public buildings and schools with other families, in a space divided only by hanging blankets and clothes, often lacking basic services like hot water and showers.
But I also saw resilience and a strong sense of community. Children play and laugh in the corridors and courtyards of the shelters, seemingly happy and content. As I spoke with some of them, they mentioned how much they miss their homes and their old friends, whose whereabouts they don't know of.
One girl said that what she misses most is her little turtle which she had to leave behind. A12-year-old boy said he misses his home, where he didn't have to endure humiliation.
At a Unicef-supported charity organization, I met Um Ahmed* making her monthly visit, with two of her children in tow. The organization dedicates two days every week to help families that have lost their breadwinner, mainly due to the conflict, by providing both financial and in-kind support including medical supplies, non-food items and clothes. Unicef has provided family hygiene kits and blankets to this organization to distribute to affected families.
Um Ahmed* lives in a neighbourhood where heavy fighting has caused large-scale destruction and displacement. Both her husband and eldest son have been killed. Um Ahmed recently returned to her home with her four children, after being displaced. Her only source of assistance is a local NGO: she survives on 7800 lira (about $80) every month, in addition to handouts.
The family lives in one room of their severely damaged house. The roof leaks when it rains.
"Life is very difficult because prices are so high. Bread for instance is very expensive and to get subsidized bread, you have to stand in a long queue. Vegetables, milk, eggs, sugar and fuel are a luxury we can't afford."
"We are mainly confined to our home," says Um Ahmed. "My children don't go out of the house except to go to school. Whenever the fighting starts, I go to take them out early to bring them home. My children are afraid all the time."
Another woman I spoke to said that she is afraid for the safety of her son who is 16 years old whenever he goes out to attend school. "I am scared he would be kidnapped or be taken at checkpoints but he is excelling in school so I have to let him go out. I want him to receive higher education too."
About the challenges that the family faces, Um Ahmed also added: "If my children get sick at night, or on a Friday, there is nowhere I can take them. We don't feel safe where we live. There have been increased cases of looting and other crimes. At night I jam the door closed with wood because we are afraid of men coming in."
There are far too many families that have been deprived of their past and endure a cruel present. Yet amidst all this devastation, what strikes me - and what gives me hope - is the determination of parents and communities to make sure their children receive education, despite the risks.