The lost children of Syria’s war
Damascus - Sham has been brought up by foster parents since her birth two years ago from the womb of her dying mother. Adnan has been nursed and cared for by a single mother since he was picked up in a street next to his mother’s dead body. Both will never know their parents and might not even know who they are and where they came from.
Sham and Adnan are among thousands of Syrian children who became orphans and lost links to their families due to Syria’s brutal conflict, which has claimed more than 250,000 lives.
Youssef and his wife, a childless couple from Raqqa, have been married for more than 25 years and had lost hope of having a child but the war unexpectedly made them foster parents of Sham. “We have not been blessed with children of our own and have given up on adopting a child due to social and tribal constraints,” said Youssef, who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Two years ago, a hospital worker and family friend asked for the couple’s assistance in caring for a newborn girl who had lost her family. “The mother was rushed to hospital after the car in which the family was travelling was hit by a missile, killing the father and two children. Only the unborn baby could be saved after she was delivered from her dying mother. We could not find any identification papers in the charred car. All we know is that the vehicle was registered in Homs,” Youssef said.
“We have the vehicle’s plate number and hope that, once matters calm down, I can travel to Homs to trace the name of the car’s owner. Maybe we would be able to identify Sham’s family.”
While Sham has some hope of learning about her family one day, Adnan does not stand a chance. A year-and-a-half ago, during fierce fighting in Aleppo, the then 8-month-old boy was rescued by a young unmarried woman.
“The shelling was heavy and people fleeing the place were caught in the crossfire. The scene was terrifying. Bloodied and dismembered bodies littered the street. I saw this baby crying near the body of a woman. So I picked him up and ran away… Since then he has been living with me and my family,” said the woman, who asked to be identified as Samira.
“I named him Adnan, after my father, and he calls me ‘mama’ though I am not married. I will never leave him. Even if I get married one day I will take him with me. Otherwise, I will not marry.”
As the war continues with no respite, young Syrians are paying a very heavy price with more than 5 million children lacking basic human necessities and the chance at an education.
According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), nearly 12,000 children have been killed and an alarming number of unaccompanied children have been making the difficult and dangerous journey from Syria to neighbouring countries.
Some arrive alone and others travel with extended family members or friends. In 2014, UNICEF estimated that 8,000 children had fled Syria without their parents, a number that has likely surged as violence intensified.
Orphanages and child care centres are crammed with orphans and unaccompanied children, many of whom are not identified and might have been lost by family members in the mass exodus from the war.
In the Dar al-Rahma orphanage in Damascus, the number of orphans has doubled since the outbreak of the crisis in March 2011.
“We had some 180 children before the war, all females aged between several months and 13 years, but with the increase in the number of orphans, we started accepting males. We have 325 children now,” orphanage director Baraa Ayoubi said.
The children are often delivered to the orphanage by police or extended family members. Many do not have identification papers and often there is no information about their families, Ayoubi said.
“In one instance, three children aged 4, 5 and 4 months were handed to a police station after the parents were killed in the shelling in Tadamon (a Damascus neighbourhood). We tried to find their relatives but it was impossible since most residents of the neighbourhood had fled,” she said. “The eldest child could not speak for more than four months and when he did he could only say the name of his father.”
SOS Children’s Villages in Syria opened two new centres in rural Damascus and one in Aleppo to cater for the growing numbers of children without families. “We have 250 children under 13, including 54 without papers. They arrive in SOS villages through associations of civil society or official channels and the Syrian Red Crescent,” SOS Children’s Villages director Salma Hakki said.
Many orphaned children live with their extended families in Syria or in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.