11/03/2014 07:20 GMT | Updated 11/05/2014 06:59 BST

Children Are the Key to Syria's Future


As the war in Syria enters its fourth year, it's easy to lose hope. Even if there is a peace deal in the next few months - which, after the disappointments of the Geneva peace talks, seems as unlikely as ever - how will people recover, rebuild, and achieve any sort of reconciliation? How can Syria be a functioning country again?

Every Syrian refugee I've met is scarred by the war. But children have been particularly badly affected. More than 1.3 million children have fled Syria as refugees - the equivalent of the population of Birmingham and Cardiff combined. Some have been injured, others have seen their parents killed or arrested. Most have heard planes circling, tanks rolling by, and machine-guns going off.

Malek, a Syrian refugee who is now working with child refugees in Turkey, told me:

"The war has stolen the smiles of children: their joy, their laughter, and their happiness. It has stolen the things they need: their daily food, their games, and their sleep. All those children are missing out on everything related to life. They are surviving but not living. When someone is only surviving, without all those things they need to have a decent and good life, they die inside."

Young children cope with difficult situations very differently from adults. They rarely talk about the way they feel or tell stories in the way I've heard older refugees tell them. They might show their feelings through the way they act. Some are withdrawn and quiet, others are angry and aggressive. Some might draw pictures showing what is on their mind.

Malek remembers how traumatised newly arrived children were when she crossed the border into Turkey: "Those first days in the tents, we gave the children paper to draw on," she told me. "They drew tanks, missiles, weapons and security centres - things that were sources of fear for them. Even when playing with Lego bricks they would make guns and point them at us, saying: 'We will kill you.'"


Sinam, another Syrian volunteer, said: "Children are the victims of all of this. You can see how they have been affected, even my young cousin of three years. He had a really bad reaction to the power cuts in Syria. We were always in the dark. So when he came to Turkey he started lighting up the rooms all the time. The lights had to be on all the time."

How do you enable children to tell their own stories and understand what they have been through? How do you help children to make sense of the loss of their homes and their loved ones?

Over the last year, I've been helping CAFOD's local partners to set up "child-friendly spaces" on the Turkish side of the border. These spaces allow children much-needed structure and routine, as well as a chance to play, relax and behave like children again. They provide a safe, supportive environment in which children can tell their own stories, express their feelings and start the long process of recovering a sense of normality.

Ahmed, who volunteers in one of the spaces, said:

"The child-friendly spaces have been a real success. The children seem happier. They are only supposed to come to the spaces twice a week, but some want to come every day. Over the last few months I've seen it's possible to make children smile again. It's wonderful and fulfilling when we can do that for them.

"We had one child who didn't want to come to the space at first. He was crying and clinging to his parents. But after working with him for a few months he started enjoying coming. And then one day he told his parents to go away and leave him there! This is a good thing. We need to give these kids happiness. It's the one thing we can do."

Thanks to donations from the UK public, aid agencies like CAFOD are helping children to play, to be happy, and to find alternatives to violence. And perhaps it's those children who can give us a sliver of hope. Many of the volunteers I've worked with certainly believe so.

Malek said: "I believe children can do something for peace. The concept of peace comes out often in the way they draw and play now. They draw pictures of planes flying away from houses and not bombing them, and tanks turning away. They are starting step by step to love again."

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