By Arthur Brown
“The world must act to save a generation of traumatised, isolated and suffering Syrian children from catastrophe. If we do not move quickly, this generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war.”
So begins the recently published UNHCR report on the plight of Syrian refugee children, the majority of who are living in Lebanon and Jordan. The report makes for grim reading. Of the 2.2 million registered Syrian refugees, 52% are children and 75% of these are under the age of 12. As of 31st October 385,007 children were registered with the UN in Lebanon, with an additional 291, 238 registered in Jordan. Many more children are not yet registered.
The report highlights the many and diverse challenges facing these children, situations which are likely to cause long-term damage, both physically and psychologically. The primary issues UNHCR reports are of:
- Fractured families,
- Children who are scared, isolated and insecure,
- The challenge in accessing suitable education,
- The pressure for children to gain employment, and
- Statelessness for many newborn babies.
Below you will find some of the key factors highlighted with regard to each of the areas.
Already there are over 3,700 children in Jordan and Lebanon who are living without one or both of their parents, or with no adult caregivers at all. By the end of September 2013, UNHCR had registered 2,440 unaccompanied or separated children in Lebanon and 1,320 in Jordan. In some cases the parents have died, been detained, or sent their children into exile alone out of fear for their safety. It is hard to imagine the long-term consequences not only for these children, but for the communities to which they belong. Wounds this deep may never be healed. The scale of the problem is beyond imagination and yet, as I look into the eyes of a child experiencing this tragedy, I long to see hope for the future. In some cases I can; in others it is much harder.
The consequences of what countless children have witnessed means that many live in a constant state of fear. They have been injured and traumatised, and have seen friends and family members killed. They are living in crowded and stressful environments, with little hope of returning ‘home’, whatever home may look like now. It is impossible to know what the future holds for these children, but for sure it is not one I would want for my own children. This hopelessness and trauma impacts children’s general wellbeing, often having a negative effect on sleep – including nightmares – speech and social skills.
- What does it mean for the people of God to ‘live in hope’ within such hopeless situations?
- What does hope look like, tangibly, for these children and their families?
- What responsibility does the global church have for these vulnerable children, particularly in light of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46, a part of which says:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “
Not only are these children are hungry, thirsty, sick, and strangers in need of shelter, they are also imprisoned in a state of fear, depression and ongoing trauma!
Isolated & Insecure
Children who grow up in healthy environments have opportunities to play and socialise with other children. Many Syrian refugee children feel isolated and stay at home, either for their own safety, or because they have become insecure and afraid of social contact. Many do not have access to safe, child friendly environments where they can grow and develop.
The reality is that the Syrian crisis is often seen in terms of a crisis for Lebanon and Jordan, with the majority of those surveyed by the UNHCR in both countries saying that their countries “should not receive more Syrian refugees.”
The infrastructures of both countries are at breaking point. And, the already fragile sectarian tension in Lebanon is being put under increasing pressure. In recent days more and more people have been killed in Tripoli as a result of the spill over of the Syrian civil war in Lebanon.
People are scared.
However, many faith based communities, Muslim and Christian are stepping up to the task of providing care and support to those most in need. This is something we need to highlight and inform others people about. Many churches are taking their responsibility seriously, and despite the many challenges are demonstrating love in very practical ways.
It is time for the global church to step up their efforts to work hand in hand with the local MENA church.
The Challenge of Education & Work
Lebanese schools simply cannot cope with the number of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. Although most children are desperate to attend school, it is estimated that soon 200,000 Syrian school-aged children will not be registered in school – that is more than the total number of Lebanese children in public schools in Lebanon!
Those children ‘fortunate’ enough to be in one of the government schools face huge challenges, including:
- Physical and psychological abuse by both teachers and other students,
- Curriculum and language challenges, as many of the schools in Lebanon teach in French which Syrian children do not understand,
- Transportation and the distance needed to travel to schools with availability, and
- Competing demands requiring many children to work rather than attend school.
Many children, even if they would like to attend school, are often pushed into exploitative work contexts in order to bring in much needed money for the family. It can be hard to convince a parent trying to take care of their hungry children that education is a priority.
Some churches have set up education projects to try and help these children. One such project in a local baptist church is supporting both Lebanese and Syrian students in Grade 9. As well as the formal educational aspects, such programs are providing like-skills training and peace-building/conflict resolution activities, which help break down many of the social, cultural and religious barriers that exist.
Blessed are the peace-makers – even if their efforts are on a small scale, in comparison to the great need!
Born into Exile – Stateless Children
Another long term consequence of the present situation is the number of newborn babies who are not being registered. For a number of reasons – such as cost, not knowing the process to follow within a different country, not having the correct documents and not understanding the implications of failing to register a birth – the level of birth registrations for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are low.
Another recent UNHCR survey in Lebanon found that 77% of the 781 Syrian newborns did not have an official birth certificate. Having statehood is a fundamental human right and the long term implications of not having an official identity are significant, not least in terms of accessing humanitarian support, education, employment and medical care.
Each of these babies and children are created in the image of God [Genesis 1:26-27] and as a result have God given dignity and significance. The ongoing results of an evil war are robbing these innocent children not only of their innocence, but of their dignity and their hope.
What role do we have, as people of faith? As Christ followers who are called to demonstrate the Kingdom of God, ‘here on earth as it is in Heaven’, what must we do? How will we be God’s hands, his feet, and his prophetic voice in this situation?
If you are looking for practical ways to help, please contact IMES and we can put to in contact with churches and ministries who are already making a difference in the lives of some of these children. The need increases to grow, as does our responsibility towards these vulnerable young people.