The shocking reality for a generation of Syrian children

The crippling lives of Syrian children in the midst of war

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The Independent Online

The new executive order on immigration signed by President Donald Trump on Monday once more suspended the United States' refugee resettlement program. The White House's insistence that refugee vetting protocols aren't tight enough is supported neither by empirical evidence nor by the government's own data on refugee-related security threats.

Nevertheless, the vilification of refugees – Syrians in particular – has been central to Trump's political messaging since the early months of his campaign. Such grandstanding has done nothing to address the plight of Syrians, especially the most vulnerable among them.

More than half of Syria's population has been forced to flee their homes. There are more than 4 million refugees registered by the United Nations, and at least 1 million more living unregistered in neighbouring countries.

For children in particular, the cost has been staggering: According to Unicef, the UN's children's agency, 8.4 million Syrian children and adolescents – more than a third of the nation's total population – are in need of humanitarian aid, and more than 2.5 million kids are currently living as refugees or on the run in search of safety.

But it will take much more than international fundraising to stop their suffering.

A report published this week by Save the Children detailed the astonishing and tragic fate of an entire generation of Syrian children who are growing up with the trauma of six years of bombing and bloodshed. Researchers interviewed 450 Syrian children, adolescents and adults still living inside the country. They found that many Syrian children are suffering from “toxic stress” as a result of the conflict. According to the British charity, at least 3 million kids remain in the country and know nothing but war.

“I would be confused if I didn't hear or see airstrikes, because they happen so often,” said Ala'a, an adolescent living in the country's south, who was interviewed in the report.

This has profound consequences in terms of their development. Various rights groups and humanitarian organisations have warned of an alarming spike in child suicides. They fear the devastating long-term consequences for Syria's future as its young people grow up amid the ruins of one of the Middle East's most ancient societies.

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Girls who survived what activists said was a ground-to-ground missile attack by forces of Bashar al-Assad (Reuters)

“After six years of war, we are at a tipping point, after which the impact on children's formative years and childhood development may be so great that the damage could be permanent and irreversible,” said Marcia Brophy, a mental health adviser for Save the Children in the Middle East.

The report, titled “Invisible Wounds”, laid out a chilling snapshot of what more than a half a decade of fighting has done to a generation of children:

– 80 per cent of children and adults said children and adolescents have become more aggressive, and 71 per cent said that children increasingly suffer from frequent bedwetting and involuntary urination – common symptoms of toxic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among children.

– Two-thirds of children are said to have lost a loved one, had their house bombed or shelled or suffered war-related injuries.

– 51 per cent of adults interviewed said adolescents are turning to drugs to cope with stress.

– 59 per cent of adults said they knew children and adolescents who had been recruited into armed groups. Almost half knew of children working at checkpoints or barracks.

– One of every four children is now at risk of developing a mental health disorder.

According to the report, 48 per cent of adults surveyed said they had seen children who had lost the ability to speak or who had developed speech impediments during the course of the war. My colleague Louisa Loveluck detailed her own encounter with this phenomenon on Twitter: I met Mohamed in a Lebanese refugee camp. He was so traumatised in Syria that he hasn't spoken since he left.

Given the total collapse of the Syrian state in large parts of the country, access to mental health and counselling is extremely limited and in many cases simply unavailable. Save the Children estimates there are currently two psychiatrists for per 1 million people in the country. According to Unicef, some 2.6 million Syrian children are no longer in school.

Save the Children, like so many other international rights groups and humanitarian organisations, has called for an immediate cessation of the violence and urged the international community to do more to address the needs of Syrian children. Such entreaties often fall on deaf ears in regional and Western capitals.

Of course, ending the war isn't easy. Foreign diplomats have struggled for years to forge a roadmap toward some kind of political resolution, and there seems to be little appetite in the West to get more deeply involved in either the war or forging the peace. But in the meantime, starving efforts to help and resettle Syrians – the UN refugee agency is chronically and woefully underfunded – makes little sense. The fate of a generation of Syrian youth scarred by war has profound global implications, and an eventual post-war Syria will be a basket case if its young people cannot live something like normal lives.

“I feel like I've seen so many terrible things. We need to go back to school so we can study and get educated,” said Zainab, an 11-year-old girl living in Hasakah governorate. “What if I get old and I continue on this same path and I lose out on my entire future? I want to study and grow up and teach my children as well. I want to be a teacher. What if all these years pass by and I don't become anything? It's not fair.”

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