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Syria: Trip Report: Part IV

The Future of Syria

It is clear to us that thousands more civilians will starve to death, be displaced, or be killed unless there is a much more vigorous effort from the international community to halt the conflict and address the growing humanitarian crisis. In addition, our trip brought home the fact that the impact of the crisis extends far beyond Syria to places throughout the Middle East and will have widespread human and strategic consequence for years.

“It is clear to us that thousands more civilians will die unless there is a much more vigorous effort from the international community.”

I would like to conclude by sharing one more story of a Syrian refugee family I met in Amman. “Asil” and “Ayman” (I have changed the names for their protection) invited me into the small apartment they are sharing with their three young children, and we sat on cushions in the small living space lit by a single light bulb from the ceiling.

They are from near Homs, one of the areas now being battered into submission by the government. Both vividly remember the day when members of the pro-regime militia group known as the shabiha came into their village, forced Ayman and other men to lie down on the ground, and put guns to their heads to terrorize them before letting them go. Ayman said he was hit on the head by a rifle butt and to this day has a hard time seeing or hearing.

Episodes like this made it easy for Asil and Ayman to choose to leave their village. Like many other refugees, they moved several times inside Syria, staying with family and friends and even, for a stint, sheltering in a school, before making the decision about a year ago to try to cross the border. After three months in Zaatari, the family moved into this tiny apartment, where they pay the equivalent of US$175 for rent, not including water and electricity. Ayman was a construction worker before the war began but has been unable to find work, in part because he was injured in an auto accident several months ago. It is also difficult for newcomers to obtain necessary work permits from the government. So the family survives on charity from friends and imams and the assistance of UNHCR and other groups.

What’s most sad, however, is the transformation of their children, ages 10, 11, and 13. Although two of them are now in Jordanian school and have achieved some degree of normalcy, Asil has noticed a definite change, remembering how the children happily played with animals on the farms near their village and, until three years ago, led a largely happy childhood. “They are not playful anymore,” she told us. “They don’t know joy anymore.”

As we witnessed at the border crossing, the majority of the refugees coming across the border are under 18. According to a recent UNHCR report, of a total of 2.4 million Syrian refugees, more than 1.1 million are children. Of these, three out of four are under the age of 12. More than 11,000 children have been killed in the war, and outbreaks of polio have been reported in recent months. In Jordan, we were told, more than 100,000 refugee children are not enrolled in school, and there has been a shameful rise in child labor since the crisis began.

As we looked at the young faces around us, we were struck by the reality that what’s at risk in the current crisis is not just the present but also the future of Syria.