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Youth on the Frontline: Syrian Refugee Crisis

By · 31 August, 2017 · Features

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them”. – Epictetus

Statistics are something that we as humans take for granted, they allow us to numerically visualise reality. This is all well and good until a person cannot imagine the actuality. For instance, if I were to take an Economics student and ask them to imagine 5.8 million dollars they could do so easily, and an image would appear in their mind. Even so, if I told them to now imagine the 5.8 million children in need in Syria, they would likely have a mental blank. We as humans can’t even begin to imagine that. We can’t force ourselves to imagine the millions of children who have lost their parents, nor can we ever hope to imagine the cumulative pain and suffering of those children.

Nevertheless, it is hard to blame that student for not being able to imagine such things. As the thinkers and revolutionaries we are in this generation we need to actively avoid overthinking things like death and depression. When we don’t, it is easy to slip into feelings of nihilism or powerlessness especially when facing a crisis that has been ongoing for 7 years.

The crisis I mention is not that of Syrian children’s experiences in their home country, but that of their experiences within the neighbouring countries around them. More specifically, Lebanon, a country I am very attached to. In December of 2015, and July of 2017 I took upon myself to travel to the country to enable myself to visualise those statistics. During my time there, I met with people who worked within a range of organizations including the UNHCR, UNICEF and Save the Children. It was through these discussions that I began to collate not only the truth behind the statistics but the stories behind them as well.

One of the most compelling stories I was humbled to hear was that of Wissam Mehanna; an incredible young woman who provided an amazing insight to the situation on the ground in Lebanon. She describes the initiatives to aid refugee children as a mere patch up to a continuing and deepening rift between Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities. This is a crucial factor as Lebanon hosts the largest refugee population per capita in the world  – more than one million officially registered Syrian refugees – so a neighbourhood dispute can very quickly turn into something far worse.

The sad truth of this reality is thrown into stark relief in these images captured by Dina Abdou when responding to the burning of a portion of a Syrian refugee camp by enraged Lebanese citizens.

Another challenge facing the region is a concept know as ‘donor fatigue’. This essentially means that donors like the UN, EU, US or UK are pouring less and less money into Lebanon due to the minimal change observed in last 7 years. As well as this, due to lack of media coverage, donors  prefer funding projects within Syria leaving many projects within Lebanon underfunded.

The crisis continues to escalate as the refugee population grows due to high birth rates and sudden refugee influxes prompted by the areas of fighting near the borders. Whilst institutional predictions report the Syrian Refugee population is 1.3 million, sources on the ground suggest this is drastically inaccurate. Wissam Mehanna believes there are as many as 2 million Syrian refugees in the area, and the number is likely to continue to grow. This  does not excuse the lack of change being observed as almost 12 to 15 billion dollars have been spent in Lebanon. But where does all this money go?

On one side, there’s the high spending by humanitarian organizations on high staff salaries (In several cases one expat salary equalled those of 10 or 15 local staff). The other is the lamentable response by the Lebanese government that didn’t bother to contain or try to coordinate the Syrian refugee crises and in Mehanna’s opinion this “played a huge role in worsening the situation”.

Another unfortunate factor in the programming is that none of it was sustainable and was simply 6 months to 1 year of implementation with no follow up projects. I don’t believe anyone wanted to imagine – despite the obvious signs – that this would be a protracted and long-term crisis, and organisations preferred to deal with it on an Ad Hoc basis. This has created a vicious cycle of throwing money on a problem far more complex than originally thought.

Because of this culmination of hatred, donor fatigue and lack of sustainability, the aid work of the UN has been severely hindered and has left Syrian children in a rather awful position. To truly understand this, I asked Wissam to summarise what she believes was the issues facing Syrian children.

“For me 3 issues are at the epitome of the dangers and risks facing Syrian refugee children:

  • Child labour. Maybe it’s not fair or hurtful to say this but I believe children have become currency for their parents. Their only purpose in this world is to be a means of income. Either through begging on the streets, working in menial and harmful conditions, and in several cases, engaging in sex work. There have also been reports of involvement of children in organ selling.
  • Child marriage. So many have lost their childhood before it began by being sold to the “highest bidder” at ages as young as 8. This is a widespread practice to ensure a sum of money to the parents as well as one less mouth to feed and take care off.
  • High rate of illiteracy is a primal cause as well as also damaging their future. Most children born within those 7 years have not received any form of education, while the rest of the elder children who were displaced with their parents to Lebanon were unable to continue their education due to cost / labour to support the family including begging / and minimal support from humanitarian agencies including the Ministry of Education to support educational programs”.

These 3 issues and their correlation with each other have made a massive impact on the mental and psychosocial health of Syrian refugee children. The hardships they have endured, and continue to endure, and their lost hope for a future in which they have decent minimal living conditions as well as access to basic needs foremost is education, have prompted many children to “give up”. A further challenge the region is facing is the recruitment of children into extremist groups who abuse their lack of awareness, as well as their anger and frustration to pressure them, and further destroy their childhood and future.

To conclude, I do understand how hopeless of a situation the children are facing within Syria sounds, however it is imperative that we as youth truly learn about situations like these rather than just read through statistics on a screen that never help bring the actuality of the situation to light, and in turn leaves the general populous unaware and unwilling to help, leading to situations exactly like these which get tossed aside over time and left to fester. It’s her to describe just how amazed you would be at how much you can develop as an individual by simply asking people of another background to tell you their experiences, as it really showcases just how sheltered and lucky we are in Australia, and hopefully that will drive you to want to experience and help in these places first hand just as I did.

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