The daily trials of street children
BEIRUT - You encounter them sometimes selling things on the streets, collecting garbage, working in garages or fields. Their names are Samir, Hiba, Ula. They have dropped out of school or never been there and, according to Juliette Touma, UNICEF regional spokeswoman on the Syria crisis, life for many of those children in the Arab region has become a daily horror show.
Beyond the staggering figures disclosed in a report from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) — 15 million Arab children out of school and 6 million more at risk – Touma underlines in an interview with The Arab Weekly the impact of current wars on Arab children, particularly in Syria and Iraq.
“We are talking of millions of children who have endured huge sufferings and witnessed horrors,” she said. “They have been displaced, sometimes overnight. Some of their houses have been bombed. They witnessed loved ones being either taken away or killed, kidnapped, arrested. Their schools sometimes bombed.
“It’s a horrific situation. It’s a brutal civil war and it’s something we haven’t seen for the past two decades.”
Touma reckons that Syria’s crisis, which started in 2011, is one of the toughest challenges UNICEF has had to face in 60 years of existence, not the least because of the length of the conflict. Inside Syria, 5.6 million children need assistance, including 2.8 million who are out of school.
Touma said UNICEF is particularly concerned about 2 million Syrian children it is unable to reach on a regular basis.
“These are the children who live under siege… or in hard-to-reach areas where conflict has been very heavy,” she said. “We are talking about Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, rural Damascus, some parts of Homs and Aleppo, some parts of Deraa.”
The United Nations has no contact with the Islamic State (ISIS) militants who control Syrian territory where 40% of the population lives. It tries to reach children living there through a network of local partners who deliver assistance. There is, however, no way to assess what is being really done on the ground. And not all of the out-of-reach children live in areas held by ISIS, some are in rebel- or regime-held areas.
“We continue to advocate with parties to the conflict to give us access. Sometimes, we have windows of opportunity where we are given the OK to go to some of those areas but it certainly is not enough. We need to do much more.” said Touma.
Since 2013, UNICEF has spearheaded a “No Lost Generation Initiative” focusing on providing children with psychological support, education and protection. Some 500 school clubs where children can go for catch-up classes have been opened across Syria in addition to teacher-training programmes. Classes are also held for refugees outside Syria.
Another project aims to establish schools at home in unsafe areas where schools have been destroyed or turned into shelters.
“It is a self-learning programme targeting areas where children are not able to reach school,” Touma explained. “It means that you deliver to the child a kit… it has books, colouring stuff.
“Outside Syria we have built three schools in Jordan’s Zaatari Syrian refugee camp and we work with governments in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to expand the learning space for children by resorting to double shifts; morning for local children and afternoon classes for Syrians.”
A cash-assistance programme for refugee families, starting with Jordan, is also being implemented. “Many kids have become bread-winners and by giving cash to their families, we hope this will be an incentive to send back their kids to school,” Touma said.
Another country at great risk is Iraq where there are 2 million internally displaced children. Children have fled sometimes overnight with just the clothes they were wearing, according to Touma, who worked in Iraq immediately after last June’s crisis when ISIS launched a major offensive.
“Again this is a story of horror, fear, unpredictability,” she said. “At the peak of the Syria crisis we warned about the risk of having a lost generation of Syrian children but I think right now when you look at the numbers, unless we tackle this issue, we could be at a risk of having a lost generation of children in this region.”
UNICEF is 70% short of the $900 million it needs to fund its work, Touma said. She remains, however, hopeful stressing that “if we get the mobilisation we are calling for; if we get the prioritisation of education, for example, to be high on the agenda of governments of civil society of those who have influence; if we have the financial investments needed, we would be able to put a stop to the deterioration of the situation of children in one aspect and that is education.”
This bleak picture is brightened by the fact, as Touma says, “Education is something that everybody asks for.
“It’s quite fascinating because when you meet people on any side of the conflict in Syria — mothers, fathers, children themselves — you keep hearing, ‘I want to go back to school.’ ‘I want to become a doctor.’ ‘I have a dream of becoming an astronaut …’”
Will the dreams of these Arab generations at risk come true?