A HUMANITARIAN’S JOURNEY INSIDE SYRIA

By Vincent Lyn

Here in Salimiyah, Syria with Ibrahim age 8. He has known of only war his entire life and yet he still musters a brief moment to smile

In war zones parents go to sleep at night not knowing if their children will see the morning. That is a measure of fear that most of us can never feel. But when you are aiding and assisting children in conflict you have to go to places where you could be killed or where others are being killed. You simply put one foot in front of the other to make sure it becomes part of the record.

Syria, sadly once again takes the top spot in 2020 for the most dangerous country in the world. Along with Afghanistan, South Sudan, Iraq and Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.

After returning from Syria in November 2019 and having been to many of the countries on this list one of the main issues across the board is government control and law and order is minimal or non-existent across large areas. There can be serious threat of violent attacks by armed groups targeting travelers and international assignees. Government and transport services are barely functional that includes large parts of the country totally inaccessible to foreigners.

No doubt Syria has been at war now in its 9th year but the fighting up until recently has been focused in one area only, Idlib Province in the northwest part of the country. The Battle of Idlib began on March 24, 2015 and was a quick victory for al-Nusra Front-led rebels. Ever since there has been heavy fighting going on with various led terrorist groups specifically al-Nusra Front. The United Nations has sounded the alarm over a severe humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria’s northwest, where a Russian-backed Syrian government push against the country’s last rebel-held

stronghold has forced more than 500,000 people from their homes in two months. The vast majority, 80% of them are women and children.

One of the many refugee camps spread throughout the Middle East home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian children

From my own personal experience having gone to Syria and driven all throughout the country from Damascus, Ghouta, Homs, Aleppo and Palmyra, except for a wake up one morning from artillery shaking the very foundation of the hotel in Aleppo. The rest of my journey was surreal yet amazing and I loved being there and plan on returning this June. Many don’t understand why I travel to these dangerous places knowing I could so easily get killed. But I feel strongly that one has to care enough about people and especially innocent children and most importantly to let the world know about what is happening. Yes there’s a grave chance I could get killed, but there are so many that are being killed. I feel it’s necessary to help in anyway I possibly can with donations and to spread global attention on the devastation, destruction and atrocities that have been committed by the various terrorist groups that have laid siege to the once beautiful land of Syria.

Since the Syrian conflict officially began March 15, 2011, families have suffered under a brutal conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, torn the nation apart, and set back the standard of living by decades. With a country of a prewar population of 22.5 million, nearly 13 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance. Healthcare centers and hospitals, schools, utilities, and water and sanitation systems are damaged or destroyed. Historic landmarks and once-busy marketplaces have been reduced to rubble. War broke the social and business ties that bound neighbors to their community. Millions scattered, creating the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. About 6.7 million Syrians are now refugees and another 6.2 million people are displaced within Syria. Half of the people affected are children.

The Syrian army and various militant groups are fighting to control territory in the country’s northeast and northwest. The civil war has become a sectarian conflict, with religious groups opposing each other, which affects the whole region and is heavily influenced by international interventions. Children in northeast Syria have already lived through years of war and the terrifying rule of ISIS. Now they’re living in fear once again — forced to take what they can carry and flee, sheltering from the bombardment, and cut off in some cases from life-saving humanitarian assistance.

The following is a timeline since the conflict began in 2011:

2010, Syria is a modern society built on the cradle of civilization. Many people don’t realize that before the war began Syria was ranked in the Top Five Countries in the World for Personal Safety. Syria’s rich cultural history dates back more than 8,000 years. It is an economically fast growing middle-income country according to the World Bank. Agriculture, industry, tourism, and oil are economic mainstays. Healthcare and primary and secondary education is free. President Bashar al-Assad succeeds his father as ruler.

2011, The Syrian conflict begins. Peaceful protests in southern cities in March are met with violent crackdowns by Syrian security forces. Hopes of Arab Spring reforms are dashed by armed repression. Opposition groups organize but can’t seem to unite. International sanctions and other attempts to pressure the government to moderate are futile; its actions are met with defiance.

2012, Syrians flee the bombing and repression. Lebanon becomes a major destination for Syrian refugees. Many hope they’ll return home soon. Za’atari Refugee Camp opens in Jordan near the Syrian border. Though designed as a temporary settlement, it became home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have stayed for years.

Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan home to 120,000 men, women and children many of whom have been here for years

2013, Conflict increases as other countries join the fight. By March Syrian refugees total 1 million. In April, chemical attacks are confirmed and by September, Syrian refugees total 2 million.

2014, Humanitarian needs increase, but access to people in need becomes more difficult for aid groups. In April, Azraq Refugee Camp opens in Jordan; 1 million refugees are now in Lebanon, estimated to be one-quarter of the country’s population. The large number of refugees puts a severe strain on the nation’s social systems. In June, ISIS declares a caliphate in Syria and Iraq’s occupied territory. Syrian refugees number 3 million in countries neighboring Syria; 100,000 people have reached Europe.

2015, Europe feels pressure of Syrian refugees and migrants. Hungary erects a border wall then closes the border with Serbia to stop refugees from entering Europe. The World Food Program cuts rations to refugees in Lebanon and Jordan due to a funding shortfall. On September 2nd the photo of 3 year-old Alan Kurdi shocks the world. The body of the lifeless toddler, face down, washed up on the beach. Thousands of refugees arrive daily in Greece; 1 million refugees reach Europe during 2015.

Alan Kurdi 3 year-old. This image of his lifeless body that shocked the world

2016, Syria is devastated by years of war. In February, U.S. and Russian delegates negotiate a temporary cessation of hostilities, sanctioned by the U.N., to send aid to hard-to-reach populations in Syria. By June, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are trapped in no man’s land when Jordan closes the border after a car bombing. As the year came to a close civilians are caught in the crossfire as the Syrian government retakes Aleppo from rebels. A ceasefire to free them fails.

2017, Syrians seek safety, stability. By March, more than 5 million people have fled conflict in Syria. The following month, 58 people are killed in a suspected nerve gas attack. In July, a ceasefire is brokered at the G20 meeting for southwest Syria. Clashes are ongoing in Daraa, ar Raqqa, Homs, and Hama provinces and Deir ez-Zor city. More than 900,000 Syrians have been displaced this year.

Omar Daqneesh 5 year-old. This image of him sitting in an ambulance after being dragged from the rubble of his home

2018, Humanitarian aid is limited as the conflict continues. Fighting continues, despite international agreements for de-escalation. Humanitarian access is limited because of insecurity, and 2.9 million people remain in hard-to-reach areas where aid is not supplied on a regular basis.

2019, Refugees experiences new hardships. January and February winter storms batter Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan with snow, rain, heavy winds, and near-freezing temperatures. Rising floods drive many refugees from tent settlements, especially in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. By March 15th Syria enters the ninth year of the Syrian civil war. By April the conflict increases in northwest Syria resulting in healthcare facilities being destroyed and more than 400,000 displaced from May to October. Military operations near the Turkish border in northeast Syria lead to deaths and displacement of civilians.

The tragedy in Syria continues to affect millions of people and spill over into surrounding countries. For many Syrian children, all they have known is war. Their grim circumstances have had an extreme effect on their mental, physical, and social health, jeopardizing the future of children who will one day need to rebuild Syria. Syria’s army has been regaining territory since late 2015. Only Governorates in the northeast and northwest remain outside government control. Humanitarian groups are unable to access many conflict areas, so there is limited knowledge of civilians’ needs. As many as 70% of the Syrian people live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day. With hundreds of thousands of people newly displaced in northern Syria, aid groups are concerned about meeting their needs for shelter, clothing, and heat during the coming winter.

Destruction and devastation on a level not seen since WW 2

Syrians fleeing conflict often leave everything behind. So they need all the basics to sustain their lives: food, clothing, healthcare, shelter, and household and hygiene items. Refugees also need reliable supplies of clean water, as well as sanitation facilities. Children need a safe environment and a chance to play and go to school. Adults need employment options in cases of long-term displacement.

Syrians have left their homes because of life having become unbearable. Since the Syrian civil war began, an estimated 600,000 people have been killed including more than 55,000 children. The war has become deadlier since foreign powers joined the conflict. Within Syria, 95% of people lack adequate healthcare and 70% lack regular access to clean water. Half the children are out of school. The economy is shattered, and 80% of the population lives in poverty. Syrian children — the nation’s hope for a better future — have lost loved ones, suffered injuries, missed years of schooling, and experienced unspeakable violence and brutality.

Most refugees from Syria are still in the region. They’ve fled violence and sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Around 10% are taking the dangerous journey to Europe. The majority of Syria’s 6.7 million refugees have fled by land and sea across borders to neighboring countries but remain in the Middle East.

Turkey — 3.6 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey. Ninety percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey live outside of camps and have limited access to basic services.

Lebanon — 950,000 Syrian refugees make up about one-sixth of Lebanon’s population. Many live in primitive conditions in informal tent settlements, which are not official refugee camps. With few legal income opportunities, they struggle to afford residency fees, rent, utilities, and food.

Jordan — 670,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan. Some 120,000 live in refugee camps, including Za’atari and Azraq, where aid groups have converted desert wastes into cities.

Iraq — 250,000 Syrian refugees are in Iraq. They are concentrated in the Kurdistan region in the north where more than a million Iraqis fled to escape ISIS. Most refugees are integrated into communities but the large number of newcomers puts a strain on services.

Egypt — 130,000 Syrian refugees are in Egypt.

Many Syrian children have never known a time without war. For millions of them, the conflict has stolen their child-hood and affected their long-term physical and mental health as well as their prospects for the future. Many children caught up in this crisis lost family members and friends to the violence, suffered physical and psychological trauma, and had to leave school. Children are susceptible to ailments brought on by poor sanitation, including diarrheal diseases like cholera. They may miss vaccinations and regular health checkups, especially in cut-off areas. In poor housing, cold weather increases the risk of pneumonia and other respiratory infections. Many refugee children have to work to support their families. Often they work in dangerous or demeaning circumstances for little pay. Warring parties forcibly recruit children who serve as fighters, human shields, and in support roles. Children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation in the unfamiliar and overcrowded conditions found in camps and informal tent settlements. Without adequate income to support their families, and fearful of their daughters being molested, parents may opt to arrange marriage for girls some as young as 13. Forty percent of Syrian refugee children are out of school. In Syria, the war reversed two decades of educational progress. One third of school are not having classes because they have been damaged, destroyed, or occupied by military groups or displaced people.

As you can see the situation seems overwhelming. Even with the largest intergovernmental organization the United Nations, and countless NGO’s like UNICEF and IRC (International Rescue Committee), WFP (World Food Programme), etc. scrambling to help and send aid but with heavily laid sanctions that have been placed on Syria the situation is extremely dire. Sometimes taking up to 6 months before it arrives to the much needed affected areas. Yet here we are, the year 2020 and what we have created is the worst humanitarian crisis not seen since World War 2.

The question I get most asked is, “How can I help?” Many believe that they themselves can’t make a difference. But that is where you are wrong. It is because of a single person that can spread a seed to bring other caring persons into the foray. Pray and lift up the needs of Syrian families caught up in the conflict of refugee children, and aid workers. (Give and donate to my foundation www.WeCanSaveChildren.org). Because when you donate you become a vital partner in We Can Save Children’s work to help refugees in the Middle East. Speak up and spread awareness and my message. Inshallah.

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts

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