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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C

Column Three years into civil war, families deprived of food are forced to eat stray cats

The Syrian conflict is the world’s largest humanitarian disaster. After three years of conflict, basic services like healthcare are completely collapsing, writes Peter Power of UNICEF.

FOUR-YEAR OLD Adnan was caught in the fire caused by a bomb that hit his home in Syria. His parents acted quickly to save him but he was left severely burnt and deeply traumatised. Now a refugee in Lebanon, his mother says that Adnan cries all night and is scared to be left alone, even for a second. His is one of many horrific stories of violence that I have heard during the three years of conflict in Syria but it is one that has stayed with me.

This week UNICEF launched a report on the bleak situation currently facing children inside of Syria and the ones who have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries. The number of children struggling to survive this vicious conflict is now greater than the entire population of Ireland. Children are living in terrible conditions without shelter, food, clean water, medicine or sanitation. In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, families live in makeshift settlements on the sides of roads, stripped of all dignity and forced to give their children dirty water to drink. Inside Syria families deprived of food are forced to eat stray cats.

This is the world’s largest humanitarian disaster. UNICEF was in Syria before this crisis and we are working to reach every child who needs our help – no matter how hard to reach. Brave aid workers like Ettie Higgins from Cork are working night and day to reach children with lifesaving supplies including blankets, clean water, vaccinations, clothing, baby hygiene kits and medicines. Thanks to donations from people in Ireland and throughout the world, ten million people in Syria now have access to safe drinking water and over a million children received a warm blanket this winter.

After three years of conflict, basic services like health care are completely collapsing. Many hospitals are not functioning and ambulances no longer operate. Since the confirmation of a polio outbreak in Deir Ezzour last October, 25 cases of the disease have been confirmed in the north and east of the country. In response, the biggest immunisation campaign in the region’s history was launched by UNICEF, to prevent the spread of this devastating disease. Yet polio remains a threat, especially to the hundreds of thousands of children under the age of five in areas under siege or that are hard-to-reach.

Without help, children will grow up illiterate, angry and vengeful

In an emergency situation, children are always the most vulnerable. Shockingly, our staff estimates that 1 in 10 refugee children are working. An eight-year old Syrian girl, Jumana, told our team about her dreams of being a doctor before the conflict. Now she lives in Turkey and collects rubbish for less than €3 a day. The only way we can protect these children and allow them to fulfil their potential is through education. Without learning, and counselling for those who have witnessed horrific acts of violence, the children of Syria will grow up illiterate, angry and vengeful. That’s why UNICEF is asking the public to help stop the violence and to guarantee the education, protection and psychological support for children like Adnan and Jumana who have been affected by the conflict.

One simple way that every person in Ireland can help the children of Syria is by signing this petition today as we mark another tragic milestone – three years since the conflict began. The demands to world leaders are clear and unequivocal. To save a generation we need:

  • An end to the violence against Syrian children
  • An end to the blocking of humanitarian aid
  • An end to attacks on humanitarian workers, schools and hospitals
  • More investment in education and psychological protection for all children affected

Another way to help is by supporting agencies, like UNICEF, who are on the ground inside Syria and in refugee camps protecting and providing essential supplies and services to the families caught up in this escalating crisis.  While the imperative is clearly humanitarian, we must also look at this as a strategic investment in the children who will be responsible for rebuilding a peaceful and prosperous country in the future.

Peter Power is the Executive Director of UNICEF Ireland

Read: Syrian refugees to be offered temporary residence in Ireland

Read: “A bomb came and frightened us”: Syrian children reveal fears of violence, kidnapping and child marriage

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