"My four-year-old sister couldn't talk for a while after she witnessed our neighbourhood under attack," says Siham* (20) from Aleppo, recounting to me the story of her family's exodus to the coastal city of Tartous. I met the family when I visited one of the collective shelters for displaced families in this quieter part of the conflict-torn country.
"We gave her water and tried to make her speak, but she just couldn't. She was too much in a shock," Says Siham. This wasn't the first time I came across a story of someone temporarily losing the ability to talk because of extreme shock caused by experiencing or witnessing violence. Several families I met have told me that one of their family members or themselves, have suffered this trauma.
"Thank God she is fine now," says Siham with a smile. The family currently lives in one of the rooms at a communal building in Tartous. They are safe now, but their move from Aleppo was not without risks: "While we were moving in a car away from home, fighting broke out. We were so afraid we started crying."
Siham does not complain about the fact that she has to share space with other families. There are 37 families living in the shelter, all of them have escaped violence in Aleppo governorate. "We like it here a lot because it's safe and I wish to stay here until peace has returned," says Siham. "Now my younger sister is doing much better, and can speak again".
According to Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), there are about 200,000 persons in need of humanitarian assistance in the governorate, but the actual number is expected to have increased recently. People have come from other parts of the country including Homs, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Idleb, and Deraa. New arrivals continue to flow into Tartous on a daily basis.
A 12-year-old boy, Ali*, tells me that what he wants the most in life is "to go home, and just live with my family again like before". Ali's family lives in the same communal shelter as Siham, where many families share common space. His home in Aleppo was destroyed by a shell which hit the apartment building.
"We had a beautiful and comfortable home, with nice furniture," says Ali's mother. The family lost everything they owned in the attack. Ali said: "I don't have any toys or games that I can play with any more. I lost all of them when the house was destroyed. We were in the house when the mortar hit. It was so scary. The walls came down and everything was destroyed, but God saved us." The sandals Ali has on his feet are the only footwear he owns now.
Ali had to drop out of fifth grade when the family became displaced. He has three siblings, with another on the way. To support his family, Ali sells spice on a street in Tartous during the day: "I want a job to help my family. But more than that, I want to go to school".
Ali's mother says that her children don't attend classes because the nearby school is full: "I don't want my children to go to a school far from where we are. My daughter had to leave school after second grade. She was so good at her studies - I feel sad that she had to drop out." Like many other displaced children I met in Tartous, Ali and his siblings are being home-schooled. Too many children have been deprived of their right to education because of displacement caused by violence and prolonged conflict.
"You see children coming with nothing. They are barefoot on the street and in the shelters," says one of the volunteers with a partner organization. He warned that the situation of both the displaced families and the host communities in Tartous is only going to get more desperate if aid doesn't keep up with the needs.
"Because there is no fighting here, Tartous is not considered a priority in terms of humanitarian assistance," the aid worker told me. "But people need to understand that this problem is only going to get worse. More families are arriving, and they won't be able to go back to their homes any time soon. This is not only because of the destruction, but because of the deepening divisions in society and increasing intolerance towards others with different affiliations and views."
While luckier than others, in that they have managed to escape to safety amid raging conflict, too many families are having to endure life in makeshift shelters while trying to overcome the loss of loved ones and what they have spent their life-time in building. Too many children are missing out on education. Children and their families have had to put their lives on hold, waiting patiently for an end to a conflict which has now entered its third year.
*Names have been changed
For more information visit: www.unicef.org