As thousands flee violence in Syria, UNICEF supports separated children to reunite with families

“Her children thought she was dead, but she was here in front of me, asking about them.”

Masoud Hasen and Yasmine Saker
a family next to a tent
UNICEF Syria/ 2019
05 February 2019

Hassakeh, Syria, 30 January 2019 -  Harbiya, a mother of six, was at her home near Hajin in eastern Syria when a shell hit in early December of last year. “I was injured by shrapnel to my head,” she says. “The injury left me unconscious, and I was in a coma for the following two weeks.”

This was not the first tragedy to hit Harbiya. Her journey of displacement and suffering started more than six years ago when she and her family had to flee their home in Raqqa. Harbiya spent years on the move between Syria and Iraq fleeing violence and conflict in eastern Syria. She finally settled last year in a town in Hajin subdistrict of Deir-ez-Zor.

“When I woke up, all I wanted was to see my children. But only my eldest son Abdelkader was next to me,”

Harbiya

Harbiya had no idea where her other children were. She and Abdelkader, 18, had been transferred to the hospital and lost track of the younger children.

Harbiya was eager to leave the hospital and find her children. She went back home where she found her youngest daughter, Aisha, being cared for by neighbours. Unfortunately, there was no news of the remaining four children.

Every day, She and Abdelkader would sift through the rubble of their home in the hope of finding any proof that the children were not dead. For a month, they went door-to-door, asking neighbours and strangers, to no avail.  

Meanwhile, the four children, were alive but going through their own ordeal.

On the day of the attack the four children, Abdulrahim, 10, Abdulrahman, 9, Duaa, 8, and Nawara, 7, were taken to a different hospital than their mother’s; just a couple of kilometres away in the same town. After receiving treatment for minor injuries, a family took in the four children until their parents or caregivers could be traced.

Unfortunately, on the children’s first night with the family, violence escalated again forcing them out of their home and making it even harder to reunite them with their mother. Together with hundreds of other families, they set out on a long and arduous journey to safety at Al-Hol camp for internally displaced people, almost 300 kilometers to the north.

“We thought our mother was killed in the attack, I was now responsible for my siblings and I found it safer to go with the family to the camp.”

Abdulrahim

He was planning to get in touch with his uncles back in Raqqa when they arrived.

Once at the camp, UNICEF-supported case managers started working on tracking down the children’s uncles as the closest surviving relatives. Meanwhile, the case managers placed the four children under the care of another family at the camp. With support from UNICEF, the case managers ensured that the children received winter clothes and blankets and immediate healthcare and enrolled them in a self-learning programme to restore a sense of normality into their lives.

“I felt like I suddenly became an adult,” recalls Abdulrahim. “I was suddenly responsible for three children, not much younger than I am.”

Last week, Harbiya arrived at Al-Hol camp in Hassakeh, one of the thousands of people fleeing the ongoing violence in and around Hajin. She continued to ask about four children. It was her last hope to find them in Al-Hol.

When a case manager heard about a mother asking about four siblings, he rushed to the reception area to meet her and help her track her children down.

Two siblings
UNICEF Syria/ 2019

“I was utterly shocked when she told me the names of her children,” recalls Yousef, case manager.

“Her children thought she was dead, but she was here in front of me, asking about them.”

Children with their mother
UNICEF Syria/ 2019

Minutes later, the four children were in their mother’s arms, after a difficult month being separated.

“I almost lost hope, I was on the verge of madness,” says Harbiya. 

 

“I had nightmares that they were killed in the attack. But I’d wake up more determined to find them. Now they are in my arms again.”

Following escalation in violence in Hajin sub-district, over 23,000 people have arrived in A-Hol camp since December last year. UNICEF has been working through its case-management system to identify unaccompanied and separated children, trace their families and reunite them. So far, 15 children have been successfully reunited with their families.

Upon arrival, once screening is complete, families receive a package of assistance to meet their immediate needs including blankets, food and water as they make their way to the camp. UNICEF is on the ground at the camp and in screening centres, providing children and families with much-needed healthcare services, including basic treatment, malnutrition screening, and referral to hospitals when needed. UNICEF has also provided 500 heaters, 7,000 winter clothing kits and 10,000 thermal blankets to children and families and is providing ongoing tracking and family reunification support to unaccompanied and separated children at the camp.