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At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic

Field diary: Gardenias grow in the shattered city of Homs

By Malene Kamp Jensen

In spite of the destruction around them, young Syrians hold on to the hope that they can make a difference and build a better future.

© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2015/Jensen
Flowerpots of green gardenias at the entrance of the Al Malaab youth centre, one of the many locations where UNICEF supports programmes that teach life skills and provide vocational training.

HOMS, Syrian Arab Republic, 10 August 2015 – Just minutes after entering Homs, one is reminded of the horrors civilians have witnessed here in this central Syrian city. Chunks of the Old City lie in ruin, its streets littered with debris. Only a trickle of people have returned.
The sounds of war are heard through large booms that ricochet across the city.

But people here seem eerily accustomed even to noises that ultimately spell death or destruction. Cafes and streets are filled with men, women and children while explosions thud and flares can be spotted in an area still engulfed by fighting. 

As one Syrian woman says: “People are fed up. They just want to live their lives.”

Despite the scars of war and violence, there are glimmers of hope – especially when speaking with youth who are doing whatever they can to avoid becoming a lost generation.

Hundreds volunteer their time to find solutions to a terrible situation – in part by tapping into UNICEF-supported programmes that teach life skills and provide vocational training. So far, around 250,000 young people around the country have obtained skills that can help them persevere.

Teenage girls attending a nursing course at the UNICEF-supported Hamra centre say they are there to help their people.

© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2015/Jensen
Destroyed buildings in Homs show the toil of years of fighting.

“Before the crisis, I wanted to be an engineer and have a good income,” says 17-year-old Rama. “But now, I want to be a nurse. It’s no longer about making money. It’s an issue of wanting to help.”

Water, light and care

At the nearby Al Malaab youth centre, the entrance is lined with flowerpots of green gardenias. Each brown box carries the golden-lettered name of a budding youth volunteer entrusted with giving the plant just the right amount of water, light and care to make the fickle flowers bloom. Success is a symbolic indication that the young volunteers are ready to do the same for the city’s children and youth. 

Together they are helping to reassemble their shattered home. They take to the streets to clean them, pick up stones to rehabilitate homes and extend a helping hand to those most affected by fighting.

Everyone has a story of loss. One boy says he hid in the bathroom to avoid showers of bullets before abandoning his building. A young woman has lost touch with her husband and brother, and she fears they are dead. Everyone is missing friends who have fled.

“Most of the experienced people have left the country – the doctors, the bankers,” says Naheed, 23, who is at the centre to develop communication skills. “My last best friend just went to Germany. We need new experts – we want to look to the future.”

© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2015/Jensen
Israa, 12, stands at the doorway of the shelter she calls home, in Homs.

Azzam, 22, agrees. “We want to build back – not just buildings, but human beings,” he says. “There is this stereotype of Syrian people that they are living in a hopeless situation, but that is not the full story.”

Honouring a mother’s memory

It is children like 12-year-old Israa that these young volunteers want to take under their wing. She has found shelter in an unfinished tower in Homs with extended family and five siblings. Israa dropped out of school for three years after her mother was shot and killed in Old Homs as she went to get milk for the children.

“I remember the colour of her eyes, her hair, her smell,” Israa says. “She was a very nice and tender person.”

Israa recalls summers of the past and going to her uncle’s house at the beach. He had a big farm with a pool and the whole family would go there to swim, laugh and eat together. “Now it’s all gone,” she says. 

But a smile reappears when she speaks about how she managed, this year, to return to school and honour her mother’s memory.

“Before my mother died, she made sure I went to school,” Israa says. “I want to study and get a better future.”



UNICEF Photography: Syrian crisis

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