By ANTHEA SPINKS
I recently sent my eldest child off on her first day of school. The weeks leading up to the big day were full of anticipation for both my daughter and the family.
In the weeks that have passed since I have been overcome with a mother’s joy, witnessing my daughter’s delight in the new discoveries she is making every day. But I have also found myself thinking about some of the children I have met in circumstances much different from my own child’s happy transition into primary school.
A few months ago I travelled to Jordan, a country which along with Lebanon has taken in almost 1.5 million Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country in the past three years. There in my role as World Vision Australia’s Head of Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs, I met children who would love to be at school, but education in the countries where their families are seeking asylum is for them a luxury.
On Saturday, 15 March it will be three years since conflict erupted in Syria. In that time the violence has claimed more than 100,000 lives – 10,000 of those children – and turned the lives of 22 million Syrians upside down.
We live in a society where we have choice. But for many living in refugee camps or settlements in places like Lebanon and Jordan, school and a stable and accessible education is a distant memory of their once socially cohesive and – for many – middle income past. They too had choices back then.
Now even for those Syrian children lucky enough to access education in a formal or informal setting, they have in many cases already dropped behind. It has been years since some children attended school and some classes are held in a different language making it difficult for them to take part.
In an effort to counter this setback for refugee families and their children, World Vision is running accelerated learning programs in Lebanese schools, for Syrian children to catch up and transition into mainstream classes.
In the lead up to the third anniversary of the Syria crisis, World Vision sat down with 140 refugee children aged between 10 and 17 years old to identify the daily challenges they face as well as hear what their hopes for the future might be. The findings of these conversations have now been compiled into the report, Our Unknown Future.
Early marriage, street begging, violence and bullying are among the things the children of Syria fear most. But many also talk about the strain of the daily struggle to get by, their families trying to survive on radically lower incomes if any at all.
Under these circumstances, many children are becoming the main breadwinner for their families. This means even when school is accessible, they may not be able to go. Instead their days are spent in back-breaking labour in order to support their families. Young boys and adolescent males unfortunately see this as their reality.
Saad is four years old and works with his family. “I make concrete blocks. I hurt here and here,” he said as he points to his knees and shoulders. Saad and his family earn $9 for every 100 concrete blocks they make. More than 100,000 Syrian children are working, often in unsafe conditions, instead of going to school.
But it is not all bad. I think of my own children and the remarkable capacity that children anywhere have for bouncing back, for resilience and the ability to empathise. These qualities were amplified in the children I met in Jordan. Despite the violence they have witnessed firsthand, there are still amazing stories of hope, leadership and cheekiness!
The writers of Our Unknown Future found that Syrian children would like to help other children, take part in relief efforts and literally wipe away the tears and pain they have both witnessed and experienced.
Girls and boys who fled Syria as children are now growing into young men and women. They are becoming advocates for their own rights and demonstrating a capacity to heal. They are Syria’s future and they are championing peace and opportunity. They want the fighting to stop, the war to end and for peace to return to their homeland, so they can too.
World Vision is working with displaced Syrians and host communities. To contribute to this work you can donate to World Vision Australia’s Syrian Refugee Crisis. Visit www.worldvision.com.au or call 13 32 40.
To add your voice to a global appeal demanding an end to the devastating treatment of children affected by the crisis in Syria, sign the petition at Change.org.
Anthea Spinks is a mum of two, with another on the way. She is World Vision Australia’s Head of Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs.