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At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic

From inside Darayya: UNICEF on first humanitarian convoys to enter besieged Syrian city in four years

© UNICEF Video
The first of two aid convoys reaches Darayya for the first time in four years, delivering urgently-needed vaccines and medical supplies.

 

by Kieran Dwyer

On 1 June, UNICEF delivered vaccines and health supplies to Darayya, and on 10 June, UNICEF delivered nutrition, health and education supplies to the community. The deliveries were part of two joint convoys with the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. An estimated 4,000 people live in the besieged city, just seven km from the centre of Damascus.

DARAYYA, Syrian Arab Republic, 10 June 2016 – UNICEF teams have seen a bleak reality of fear and trauma inside Darayya – as well as strength and hope among children – while taking part in the first two humanitarian convoys to reach the city in four years.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2016/Khan
Vehicles from the second aid convoy enter Darayya in the early hours of the morning on 10 June. The first convoy on 1 June delivered vaccines and health supplies, while the second delivered nutrition, health and education supplies to the community.

During their brief time inside the city on the first convoy, health teams vaccinated 169 children against diseases such as polio and measles, as well as 30 women against tetanus. A UNICEF nutritionist conducted rapid assessments to determine the priority nutrition needs for children, as well as pregnant and lactating women.

At the main health facility, the team worked with well-organized but under-resourced and stressed health workers who are doing all they can to support children and families.

A UNICEF staff member recounted one of their stories.

“I met a young male nurse in his 20s, who works on permanent call to deal with emergencies. He showed me a photo on his mobile phone, of a beautiful 7-month old baby girl, his youngest daughter. The next photo he showed me was of him burying his daughter.”

“His wife was killed in the same attack just weeks ago,” said the UNICEF staff member. “This young nurse treats emergency cases all day, every day. He hasn’t stopped since his wife and daughter were killed. He walked around the emergency clinic in a daze, perhaps not even aware of the state of shock he is clearly in.”

A once prosperous city under siege

Situated in the Ghouta area on the outskirts of the capital, Darayya is part of a region that was once known as the breadbasket of this populous part of the Syrian Arab Republic. Today, food security for the remaining population is a major concern.

“We didn’t see any food stalls or shops in the city,” said a UNICEF staff member on the mission. “Community members told us that there is no food to buy, unless a family is able to grow a little extra in a vegetable patch or from their house’s grape vines.”

A UNICEF staff member stated that more time is needed on the ground with children, mothers and health workers to do more thorough assessments of the nutrition needs. “And we need continuous access to provide assistance and support,” she said. 

Restoring a semblance of normality

The team also visited a school, where teachers are struggling to provide educational opportunities and some normality for children.

“I saw a colourful poster for teaching the alphabet, both ‘ABC’ in English and the Arabic alphabet,” said a UNICEF team member. “A teacher explained that when taking children through the letters, they had to remove pictures of many types of food – since in four years under siege the young children had never seen many of the most basic foods.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2016/Khan
A mural on the wall of one of the underground classrooms. The school is housed in a basement for safety reasons.

“Teachers also told us that many children suffer hearing loss due to constant heavy bombardments,” explained a UNICEF team member. “Some children wore hearing aids, but the batteries stopped working long ago.”

While they worked hard to include these hearing impaired children in class and activities, teachers told us that the children often cried in frustration at not being able to follow and participate fully.

“Many children, the teachers told us, had also stopped talking, from the shock. And they explained that many students simply break out in tears in class."

Living through trauma

In the dark basement where the school is housed for safety reasons, a young man explained that before the cessation of hostilities started in late February, the school could only open for two hours a day – 7 to 9 in the morning – because they did not want to expose children to risks from attacks. When the cessation of hostilities began in late February, he said, school hours could be extended to midday. Children were getting more time to learn. But he said that in the recent days of heavy fighting, the school had shut down completely.

“I saw brightly coloured murals on the walls of the underground classrooms, and children’s colourful drawings,” said a UNICEF team member. "But the young teachers said that children need textbooks, simple stationery material like pens and pencils and paper. They told us how they combed through the ruins of the city to gather all the notebooks they could find for children to use." After four years, they are running out of paper to write and draw on – a simple notebook is divided into many parts to be shared among students.

Teachers said that for older children, 9- and 10-year-olds and older, they are trying to help them take up hobbies to take their mind off the fighting. 

“When I asked parents and teachers what support they need, beyond food, nutrition supplies and medicines,” said a UNICEF team member, “they all used one word: ‘sadma’ – ‘trauma’.”  

UNICEF delivered sports and recreation kits, with footballs and basketballs, paper, pencils and crayons and paints, and musical instruments like maracas and tambourines – simple things for children to play with.

Even though it was very late at night, there were a few small boys running around together, all about 8 years old. The one thing they kept saying was “When will this war end?”


 

 

UNICEF Photography: Syrian crisis

 

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