Hope is Running Out

As I sit on the plane on the way back from Beirut, Lebanon, typing at 30,000 feet, my mind keeps going back to one of the more emotional moments I’ve experienced in a long time.  I’m back to a small set of chilly cement rooms where a mother, father and three children live in northern Lebanon, listening to them tell me about how they fled here after years under siege in their home village of Hamah in Syria.  The family had seen such heartbreak that it was hard to take it all in during our brief time together but now, at cruising altitude, it hits me like a fist.

Perched on thin mattresses on the cement floor, we asked the mother and father about their journey and what life was like for them.  They started by thanking Save the Children for the help we had given by putting doors and windows into the bare concrete walls, in installing a sink and toilet in the apartment, and making the stairs safe to use.  The father talked about how he has only been able to get sporadic work in the northern Lebanese village; Syrians are only allowed to work in construction, agriculture or low-skill odd jobs and it meant their resources were incredibly stretched.  A young boy, less than two years old, sat in his mother’s lap and a cute, energetic 4 year-old played peekaboo with me and giggled loudly.  Then one of our team asked an innocent question – why was their 8 year-old son, stirring under a blanket on the raised platform bed in the room, not in school?

The father looked down and we saw the pain cross his face as he told us that his son, Haddi, fell from a two-story balcony in the unfinished building eight months ago, shattering his hip.  After two unsuccessful operations, he had a third one three weeks before our visit; this operation cost the family all of their savings and put them further into debt.  His mother began to cry as she told us how they had tried to get him to the best doctor they could find and showed us the X-rays—images that showed three screws in a small, fragile hipbone. This boy was not in school because he was in intense pain and had barely moved since they brought him back from the hospital.  I saw the shocked look on the face of our local team member who managed the work on the apartment, who had not seen the family since before the accident and had no idea it had happened.

We tried to think of what to say to this family, to give them some hope that their son would be okay.  In a circumstance I can only describe as fate, one of our visitors with me on this trip was from the Pacific Northwest and her daughter had been in an accident as a young girls and had the same operation for her crushed pelvis.  She comforted the weeping Syrian mom as best she could, telling her about her daughter’s story and full recovery.  But we knew that was with some of the best medical care in the world and months and months of rehabilitation. This was not after three surgeries, laying on a wooden bed with few medicines, no wheelchairs and no daily visits from a physical therapist. We wanted to give some hope but you could see in the parents’ faces that for this family, hope was fading.

Later we spoke to our team about trying to get more medical care for Haddi, care that would probably stretch the emergency fund we keep for such dire cases to the limit. We will somehow find a way to help him.

But there are so many sad cases as the Syria crisis moves into its seventh year.  So many thousands of cases of children’s lives lost or shattered, of childhoods cut short when 11 year-olds begin to work picking vegetables, when 14 year-old girls are married to “keep them safe”, when children leave their families to go on their own to try to get somewhere safer, better, saner.

As we spoke to some of UN partners the next day, I sensed some hope that, though it would be difficult, maybe on the horizon there will be a time when some of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon feel safe enough to begin going back home. But as the war now stretches past the duration of World War II, I worry for the Haddis that we don’t reach, that we don’t know about, for whom hope and time is truly running out.

Please help us provide support and hope to Haddi and his family—and so many others like them—by donating to our Syrian Children’s Relief Fund.

Syrian Kids, Lebanese Schools: A New “Normal”

 

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When we came inside the tent, the Syrian family of eight welcomed us warmly and urged us to sit close to the small stove in the center for warmth.

 

While the weather had improved from the previous weeks when a winter storm dropped several inches of snow and temperatures dropped below freezing, it was still very chilly.  It looked like the children were wearing many of the clothes they owned, layer upon layer, though the smallest little girl still had bare feet.  With our Lebanon team translating, we talked and learned how this family fled Syria under fire on their farm near Homs and had been living in this makeshift camp of about 100 families for close to a year.  None of the children, from high school age down to four years old, had been able to go to school since they left home—but their father talked proudly about how they had excelled back in Syria, when all had a house to live in and a school to go to. Now, he said, he feared they would fall so far behind they could never catch up.  And we learned later that several of the children were working as laborers to support the family, something the father was too ashamed to tell the strangers who came to visit.

 

Child refugees from Syria now number over one million across the region, with an estimated 400,000 in Lebanon alone.  For most of these children, their childhood has been put on hold and for many it will never be revisited.  Many teenagers will most likely never go back to school.  What will this mean for the future of Syria when families are finally able to return?

 

My first trip to Lebanon since the crisis in Syria was a sobering one.  It is a country of about four million people and is now home to close to one million refugees from Syria—25% of its population.  That’s like if 75 million people suddenly arrived on our borders in Texas or California.  We would certainly be reeling if such a thing happened and the Lebanese are struggling too.  Given the infrastructure challenges of such a huge influx of people, it’s not a surprise that many children have not been able to get into school even two or three years after they left Syria.

 

Luckily, small efforts are making a big difference for these children. We visited a government school in Bekaa Valley that has agreed to run “second shift” programs for Syrian children.  Here, with support from Save the Children, kids are able to come to school in the afternoons for about three hours, after the regular classes have left, and have basic instruction in math, reading and science in their native languages of Arabic and English.  Some instruction in regular Lebanese classrooms is in French, a language very few Syrian children speak, making it tough for Syrian children to attend regular classes in Lebanon. Though “second shift” does not provide a full day of instruction, dedicated teachers are able to at least keep kids leaning and engaged.  

 

IMG_5436But probably the biggest benefit of this effort is what being back in the classroom means for these children emotionally.  In stark contrast to the quiet, withdrawn children we met in tents in the makeshift camps, kids at the school were smiling, jumping up eagerly to answer the teacher’s questions, joking and playing with us and just so obviously happy to be in school, a place that seemed to finally make them feel like normal kids again.

 

It’s heartbreaking to think that millions of kids inside and outside Syria aren’t benefiting from being in a classroom. Save the Children is working hard to make sure that more Syrian children have the chance to get back to school, get back to a (new) “normal” and get back to experiencing the childhood they need and deserve.

 

You can help the Children of Syria by joining my fundraising team at SavetheChildren.org/refugee

Courageous Work in Freezing Temperatures

With more than half of the United States under a blanket of snow this week, it’s clear that winter is here! The frosty weather has arrived in full force—but it’s not just the Midwest or East Coast where winter is making itself felt. The winter snow storms have started in Lebanon and Jordan, and my Save the Children colleagues abroad are going above and beyond for Syrian refugees.

 

RS69214_IMG_1841I received an email from our Country Director in Jordan, Saba, who is leading a fearless team in very difficult circumstances. This past weekend, when accumulated snow flooded refugee tents, the team worked through the night to evacuate families to some of our Child Friendly Spaces, which were prepared as emergency shelters. They moved 134 families, including 431 children, into the heated shelters and provided warm clothing, food, mattresses and blankets. Saba noted that, despite the hours and the strain, “we will continue to work as needed” to look after children’s needs.

 

This snow is the first sign of the treacherous winter in the region that will only increase suffering for children and their families. Between November and February, temperatures can drop well below freezing—and for more than two million refugees

Syria: Sami’s Story



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Cat Carter, Head of Humanitarian Information & Communications

Save the Children UK

October 16, 2013


 

I
first met Sami*, 12, in a Save the Children supported school in Lebanon. His
quick smile and easy manner meant he quickly endeared himself to the staff
there, and the visiting Save the Children research team, of which I was
one. 

Sami

He
invited us back to his home, to meet his mother and siblings. We checked with
our security team – this area of Lebanon is considered ‘high risk’ due to
frequent clashes and car bombs, so all staff movement is monitored closely. We
received clearance and set off, moving slowly through busy marketplace. We
pulled up to Sami’s home – it’s a small garage.

After
multiple greetings were completed, we slipped off our shoes and sat on the cold
concrete floor to chat. Slowly, we pieced together Sami’s story.

“I
came from Syria one month ago….”. He paused, and looks intently at the wall,
wondering how to explain what life was like in Syria for him and his siblings.
Finally he shrugged and said simply “the situation was black and difficult.”

His
mother Amira* steps in to continue the story. Prior to their arrival in
Lebanon, Sami’s family moved around, leaving their urban hometown when the
conflict intensified – at one point snipers were targeting people trying to
fetch food and water – and arrived in a rural village, where they thought they
would be safe. That village subsequently came under attack, and the whole
family were trapped there for a full month, unable to leave and unable to get
supplies in. Food became very scarce. When the shelling and shooting began each
day, most villagers ran to a cave for shelter, but it was far from Sami's*
house, so instead they climbed into a large sewage pipe nearby.

At
their lowest point the family were surviving on one cucumber and some tomatoes
each. “The worst time was three days at the end when we were surrounded. We
slept hungry – my brother and sisters and I. Shelling was happening at the same
time.  There was no gas, so when we had a little flour my mother tried to
make some bread burning plastic bags and paper for fuel.”

It
is a bleak picture and Amira* shakes her head sadly. She explains to us that
she is deeply ashamed of their situation in Lebanon, and likened their life in
Syria to the situation facing Somalia in the height of the famine in 2011,
recalling that she watched with pity as Somali mothers were interviewed on
television to raise money for humanitarian aid. She said that she was now in
the same situation.

I
explained that it wasn’t just money we wanted from the world – we were also
pushing for unfettered humanitarian access into Syria, so that Save the
Children and other aid agencies could deliver life-saving food, water and
medicine to those who needed it the most. Amira just smiled sadly and gently
asked us to stay to eat a little food with them. We played with the children,
taking it in turns to blow up brightly coloured balloons and release them,
desperately trying to catch them, and failing every time. Before long I was
breathless with laughter but when I said goodbye to Sami and Amira, I left
their home with a profound sense of sadness.  Amira simply didn’t believe
it was possible to get humanitarian aid into Syria in any meaningful way. She
didn’t think it was possible, that those trapped in heavy conflict zones inside
Syria were beyond help.

I
want to prove her wrong.

*all names have been changed to protect identities

Donate to help Syria's Children

“I can’t buy them blankets with my own money.”

December 3, 2012


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Nadia, 30, has four young children. Zahra, her youngest, is only
five months old. Her other two daughters, Hela and Shahad,
have begun coughing. They are living in a bare building in northern
Lebanon, where they have taken refuge after fleeing growing
violence in Syria. With winter approaching, the mother-of-four
increasingly fears for her children’s health and wellbeing.

“We left – they were bombing our village. We didn’t dare to sleep in our houses from the
bombing. Our neighbour’s house was destroyed, to the ground. We ran away and came here.
We ran here, me and my little children. I was pregnant. Now it has been eight months. We are
living in the cold. It’s very cold here. We haven’t any blankets, or even food for the baby.

Life is hard here. It’s cold. We are scared of hunger. We are scared because we don’t have
blankets. We are scared of the winter … all of my children are sick.

Looking down at baby Zahra in her arms, Nadia says, “This is my daughter. She’s sick. She’s five
months old and shouldn’t be in such a room. It’s very cold. There’s nothing to warm us. We
don’t have a heating system. We don’t have fire or gas.
If we want to heat something up, we
make a fire outside. If I want to wash the baby, we have to make a fire, heat the water outside
and then wash her.

“We weren’t like this in our country. It wasn’t our choice to leave. We are forced to live here.  It’s not our decision. We want to go back to our country as soon as possible, because our
circumstances were better there. We were happy and comfortable in our country. But we
were forced to come here. We were too scared. That is why we came here. We ran away
from bombing.”

But finding respite from the conflict has not ensured a safe existence for Nadia or her
children. With no income and next to no money, Nadia isn’t able to buy her children food,
milk, winter clothes or blankets to keep them warm and healthy. “I can’t buy them blankets
with my own money. I feel I am weak because I can’t offer anything for my daughter
. She’s five
months old – she doesn’t know anything. i’m the one who is supposed to offer her what she
needs. She’s only five months old, she’s still so young.”

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