THE BLOG

Five Years of War and Heartbreak: Why We All Must Do More to Keep Syria's Children Safe

14/03/2016 12:19 GMT | Updated 15/03/2017 09:12 GMT

Five years, for any child, feels like a lifetime. For the millions of Syrian children whose lives have been turned upside down by the conflict, these last five years must have felt even longer than that. The conflict in Syria has now raged for half a decade, and in this time the millions of children affected have had to deal with more suffering and heartbreak than most of us will ever experience. The conflict has placed millions of children in terrible danger, and sadly a real end to the turmoil still seems a distant prospect. More than eight million Syrian children are now in urgent need of humanitarian aid in what is the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Children still inside Syria are living with death and destruction as a part of their everyday lives. Meanwhile, the millions who've managed to escape the conflict are facing their own unique set of dangers, often taking perilous journeys and ending up in conditions you wouldn't wish upon any child.

Just last week I travelled with Unicef UK to Jordan and Lebanon, and met just a handful of these children. Each child I met had their own heart-breaking story of a young life turned upside down, families torn apart, homes and schools destroyed.

We know that in the midst of this brutal conflict, children are constantly threatened by terrible physical dangers. But they also suffer tremendous psychological effects. Even if they survive war physically unscarred, these invisible wounds are often severely debilitating. Children's childhoods are stolen from them, and they are forced to grow up far too quickly.

I met young Majid, just 12 but the sole breadwinner for his family of nine people. Majid's father did not make it to Jordan with the rest of the family, so as the eldest boy, Majid works each day in backbreaking conditions, digging up and selling gravel in the camp, to help his mother care for his younger siblings.

Majid's story is far from uncommon, across the region, as adult refugees are often unable to work legally, children have to work to provide for their families. For Majid, the work is tough, but his sense of responsibility for his family is resolute.

It's vitally important to protect what small sense of childhood children like Majid have, and that's why Unicef works with partner organisations to run drop-in centres where children who work can come and take part in education sessions, art and sport activities and speak with trained counsellors. Here Majid was free to just be a boy again. Playing volleyball with his friends, his mind was a million miles away from his wheelbarrow and pickaxe.

Meeting children like Majid showed me just how crucial education, whether in schools or more informal settings, is for children caught up in emergencies, just like water, shelter and medicine; ensuring children have a safe space to learn and play helps them recover from the trauma of war, and the many other hardships they face.

I also met an inspiring young girl called Omaymah, who was forced to flee her home in Syria and now lives in Za'atari refugee camp with her parents and five brothers. Just 13 years old, Omaymah tirelessly campaigns for girl's education, and works with her friends to warn young girls in the camp of the dangers of child marriage.

I was inspired by the courage, hope and optimism of Omaymah, Majid and the other children I met. It is children like these who are Syria's future, and we must do all we can to help them rebuild their lives. Ensuring all Syrian children have access to the education and protection they so rightly deserve is the first step on this journey.

For children in such dangerous and unpredictable environments, the trauma remains long after escaping the warzone. Parents of younger Syrian children have reported symptoms of deep distress including children crying and screaming in their sleep, bedwetting, nightmares, and withdrawal. Education and psychosocial support can play a huge role in helping children deal with their experiences, but not all children have access to these vital services.

Despite their importance, education and protection from physical and psychological violence and harmful practices such as child labour and child marriage are often overlooked and under-funded in the global humanitarian response - leaving children to work through the consequences of crises on their own.

This needs to change. That's why I'm backing Unicef UK's call for the UK Government to prioritise providing education and protecting children in humanitarian crises, whether in Syria or beyond.

Now is the time to act - in just a few months' time, global leaders will come together at the first ever World Humanitarian Summit to ensure a more effective response to people caught in emergencies.

When a child's world is turned upside down, they need leaders who will step up, and make education and protection of children a priority. Now is the time for the UK to do all it can to keep every child safe. Otherwise we run the risk that a whole generation of Syrian children will be totally lost. These are the children we hope will return to rebuild their country. We cannot let them down.

Sign our petition to David Cameron asking the UK government to help protect children in emergencies like the conflict in Syria: http://unicef.uk/protect