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Dublin: 18 °C Tuesday 29 July, 2014

Column: The generosity of the Irish people makes me incredibly proud

Ettie Higgins works to deliver lifesaving assistance to children and babies caught up in the violence across Syria. She tells of the ongoing battle to survive in almost impossible conditions faced by families.

Ettie Higgins

MORE THAN FOUR million Syrian children are estimated to be in need of urgent lifesaving assistance – over one million have fled the country, while three million are displaced inside Syria or caught in the line of fire where heavy violence is taking place. What is happening to the children of Syria is a tragedy.

As Deputy Representative of UNICEF Syria I work with a dedicated team to deliver lifesaving assistance to as many children as we can reach across the country. I have travelled to places like Aleppo and Homs where families are witnessing violence on a daily basis and parents constantly worry that their children are safe.

In one building in Aleppo, I visited an apartment where 80 girls have no option but to share a space meant for one family. These girls face unimaginable challenges, living unpredictable lives and experiencing horrors that no child should witness.

Much of the country’s essential infrastructure has been affected, and the conflict has left hundreds of thousands of people without access to clean water and healthcare. Six out of 10 hospitals are functioning minimally or not at all, while 80 per cent of ambulances have been damaged. There are increased cases of typhoid, Hepatitis-A, and skin conditions among children due to dirty water and unsanitary conditions. One in five schools is damaged or destroyed, or sheltering displaced families.

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Image: UNICEF

Freezing temperatures and lack of safe water

Last winter was the coldest in many years in Syria, with freezing temperatures. UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies faced a daunting challenge to ensure that the most vulnerable children – especially newborns – survive the long cold winter months.

UNICEF has been on the ground in Syria for decades, but since the beginning of the crisis in 2011, we’ve greatly expanded our operations.

We are supporting the delivery of safe water to more than 10 million people and together with partners, we have already immunized 1.5 million children against life threatening diseases. More than 270,000 children in 11 of Syria’s 14 governorates are being reached with remedial education and recreation activities at more than 830 school clubs.

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Image: UNICEF

‘Zones of peace’ must be established

A few weeks ago, we launched a campaign to support children in their continued learning. We aim to reach one million conflict-affected primary school-age Syrian children with school bags containing stationary such as pens, pencils, notebooks, and rulers. Some children in Syria have missed out on two years of education – it is vital that they be given the opportunity to continue to learn.

Currently, we are preparing for the winter: stockpiling children’s clothes – jackets, socks, shoes and baby body suits. We aim to vaccinate around 2.5 million children in a massive vaccination campaign, to be implemented with our partners on the ground.

But, we need to reach more children. UNICEF continues to call for clear commitments by all parties to allow unconditional humanitarian access to children. Schools, hospitals and clinics must be ‘zones of peace’ where children can access essential services and feel safe and supported.

The people of Ireland have made me incredibly proud

The bravery of the aid workers I work with in UNICEF and in our partner organisations like the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is inspiring; it’s a challenging time for our team and their families. The entire UNICEF team is working to stay and deliver in Syria, despite the difficulties of access and security created by the conflict – and we will do whatever we can to continue supporting children while they need us.

The generosity people have shown to date in supporting UNICEF Ireland’s Children of Syria Appeal has made me incredibly proud. Yet more support from individuals and governments is needed in order to reach every Syrian child affected by the conflict. UNICEF still requires around €11.7 million to fund its emergency operations in Syria to the end of 2013.

It is the spirit and resilience of the children of Syria that keeps me going and, on their behalf, I thank you for your ongoing support.

Ettie Higgins is the Deputy Representative of UNICEF Syria and has worked for UNICEF for 10 years. She is from Cobh, Co Cork.

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