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Dublin: 5 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019
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Opinion: In makeshift refugee camps a lost generation of Syrian children cling to hope

The Syrian crisis may be entering its ninth year but a return home still feels a long way off for half a million children stranded in Lebanon, writes Aine Costigan

Aine Costigan

WHEN YOU HEAR the word Syria, chances are the images that come to mind involve bombings, shelled-out buildings and ceaseless conflict.

For many of the people I work with, it is a very different picture. Instead, they think of comfortable homes, successful careers and a happy life that they used to have.

I work in Lebanon with Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide, providing support to some of the 1.5 million people who fled to the country as a result of the Syrian conflict.

Lebanon, a tiny country about the size of Munster, has the highest ratio of refugees in the world and the population swelled from 4.5 million to 5.9 million as a result of the crisis.

Can you imagine what it would be like in Ireland?

Of course, the crowded refugee camps in Lebanon are only the tip of the iceberg too.

This month marks the eighth anniversary of the brutal conflict, which has driven six million people from their homes inside Syria and a further 5.5 million over the border to neighbouring countries including Lebanon and Turkey.

And while the impact of headlines and images from the embattled cities of Aleppo or Homs may have lessened over the past eight years, the impact of the crisis on those directly affected has only got worse.

In the 40 years that I have worked with aid organisations in Afghanistan, Sudan, India and Nigeria, I have witnessed the best and worst of humanity but it never becomes any easier to see first-hand the human fallout of conflict.

Every one of those 1.5 million refugees has their own story, one more heartbreaking than the other.

Just recently, I was speaking to a Syrian woman called Amira* and asked her, quite routinely, how many children she had.

She broke down in tears in front of me as she explained that two of her young babies had been killed in a fire in the camp.

Last week, a boy who looked no older than 10 was selling DVDs in traffic – most likely to raise money to support his family – while I was heading home from work.

When we did not stop to buy anything, he just sat down and wept. He looked so bereft and overwhelmed that the experience will stay with me for some time.

We rolled down the window and gave him the little cash we had with us but he is only one little boy, just one of the 488,000 school-age children facing unimaginable pressure and hardship.

As war rages on, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are caught between a rock and a hard place.

They may have escaped from the bombs and the terror but any semblance of security or stability still seems very far away.

The integration of those who fled has been quite peaceful but it has been a challenging transition both for refugees and for the country itself, putting huge pressure on Lebanese communities and fragile services.

The Syrian community are guests in Lebanon and as such, the government has put restrictions in place to ensure that their situation remains temporary.

Permanent structures cannot be built and instead, families are forced to live in tented settlements or converted structures like garages.

I have worked with refugee populations all over the world but the intensity of the Syrian crisis sets it apart. It has been eight years.

In Darfur, we had long-term refugee camps but at least the weather was warm.

Here, it is bitterly cold and snowing in winter, with hailstones, flooding and all kinds of hazardous weather conditions. 

The flimsy structures that the families live in only make them more vulnerable.

When some of the refugees travelled back to Syria last year, they soon returned to Lebanon.

In many cases, their homes and villages have been burned, it’s not necessarily safe and they no longer have deeds to their land. They’re really in a limbo situation and that is very difficult for them.

Resilience is one of the most positive things that you see in a humanitarian crisis.People have incredible reserves of strength and are always doing their best to improve their situation.

The Syrian refugees we work with remain hopeful of one day returning home but they are very stressed by the difficulties they face in meeting their most basic needs while waiting for that to happen.

Many of the men don’t have formal registration papers, which means it’s difficult for them to pass through checkpoints as they could be harassed or end up in detention. This often means that they can’t support their families and it feels that there’s been a shift in gender roles as a result.

Women and children aren’t scrutinised at checkpoints as much so women are trying to go out to work, mostly in agriculture. Unfortunately, there is less employment and they are paid much less than men.

On average, a man will earn $201 per month and a woman will earn just $93 for similar duties.

Another coping strategy that is increasingly being used is that children, like the boy I met last week on the road, are being sent out to work.

These children are at risk of becoming a lost generation.

Less than half of refugee children in Lebanon are in school and those who do try to continue their education face huge challenges.

Because of the pressure on services, education is organised in shifts and a lot of school activities are delivered in French – a language that the refugee children do not speak.

Economic pressures also play a huge part. Early marriage is common among young teenage girls, while boys over the age of 12 are often sent out to work. Both are survival strategies. If you have six mouths to feed and you can marry off one, then that is one less to worry about.

To me, education is so important. If we don’t educate the kids, what are they going to do when they go back to Syria? You can see the frustration among teenagers who have fallen out of education and the lost potential that goes with them.

During a visit to an informal settlement, I came across a boy who was incredibly intelligent. It was just shining out of his eyes.

He was holding a book and saying that he would love to read some more if he could just have more books. His family had nothing but he was so bright and I was just really struck by how ripe he was for educational support.

Through my work with Concern Worldwide, I’m in the privileged position of being able to meet with communities, hear their stories and help them to improve their lives.

Our work is wide-ranging so this can include providing mattresses to sleep on, negotiating a rent-free shelter for a family or rolling out protection programmes for vulnerable men, women and children.

We also run a number of education programmes for young children and assist people in setting up their own businesses through training and grants.

But, most of all, I think we offer hope and support – something that everyone needs in tough times.

It is impossible to imagine the trauma that the Syrian people have endured.

From witnessing the deaths of family members to being forced to flee with just the clothes on their back, they are now living in limbo and struggling desperately to survive.

As tempting as it can be to close our eyes to the atrocities happening in front of our eyes, we have a responsibility to play our part to minimise their pain and help them to maintain their dignity.

The Irish government has contributed significantly to the humanitarian response, with €116m being spent on the provision of child-friendly spaces, psychosocial supports for families and practical solutions such as blankets and heating stoves when the temperatures drop below zero in winter.

However, we can always do more. More political pressure is needed to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, more support is needed from EU members to ease the pressure on host countries, and commitment is needed in the long-term to help Syria and its people recover.

Aine Costigan is a Programme Director in Lebanon for Ireland’s largest international aid agency Concern Worldwide, overseeing the provision of shelter, health, protection and education to refugees living in the country.

Originally from Co. Kilkenny, Aine began her career as a humanitarian 42 years ago and has worked in Afghanistan, Kenya, Sudan, India and Nigeria.

For more information on Concern’s work, see www.concern.net.

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Aine Costigan

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