A place called home - separated and unaccompanied Syrian children

Six children found living alone for almost two months in a single bedroom are finally reunited with family

By Basma Ourfali and Yasmine Saker
Two Syrian boys sitting on steps
UNICEF/ Syrian Arab Republic 2017/ Khudr Issa
21 March 2017

The violence in Aleppo has separated many children from their families. Working with partners on the ground, UNICEF is searching for these children and providing them with safe temporary homes while efforts are made to trace family members. Twelve-year-old Mohammad and his five siblings were found living alone in terrible conditions. After several months of searching they have been successfully reunited with their uncle.

ALEPPO, Syrian Arab Republic, 21 March 2017 – On a street in Aleppo lies a two-floor house with a bright green door. Surrounded by a tiny garden of jasmine flowers and olive trees, the pretty setting stands in contrast to what the children living there have been through.

Syrian crisis in numbers*

6 years of conflict

6 million children dependent on humanitarian assistance

2.3 million Syrian children
living as refugees

More than 1.7 million children
out of school

>> Learn more in the report:
Hitting Rock Bottom

*as of March 2017

As violence escalated in Aleppo over the past three years, the city’s main orphanage was damaged. Children and staff were forced to move from one location to another seeking shelter.

By the end of November 2016, as families fled and evacuated the eastern parts of the city, UNICEF identified more unaccompanied children – some of them too young even to speak.

“It’s so sad to see children being separated from their loved ones while fleeing immediate danger amidst chaos and confusion,” says Hanaa Singer, the country’s UNICEF Representative.

There was an immediate need to create a safe haven for these children, while efforts were being made to reunite the children with their families. This is how a UNICEF-supported home came into existence and opened its doors to 74 orphaned and separated children.

“Our priority is to ensure that unaccompanied children have a safe place to stay and be cared for, while we trace their families to reunite them,” says Singer.

Syrian boy doing school work
UNICEF/ Syrian Arab Republic 2017/ Khudr Issa

After carrying the heavy burden of caring for his five siblings for two months, 12-year-old Mohammad is able to resume his childhood at the home.

Nowhere to go

Last month, as volunteers combed the neighbourhoods of eastern Aleppo in search of unaccompanied children, they found 12-year-old Mohammed and his five siblings – Doha, Hanadi, Ibrahim, Zakariya and
nine-month-old toddler Yamen. The team found the six children in a deserted area of Aleppo living in a partially-destroyed building. 

With nowhere to go and no one to care for them, the six children had been living alone for almost two months in a single bedroom.

“My father was killed during the fighting and our mother was detained when she went out to buy some food,” says Mohammed.

The children had no option but to survive on the small amounts of food and clean water they could afford by selling scraps of metal they found rummaging through the rubble. They would try to stay warm by burning pieces of wood.

Despite his young age, Mohammad took on the responsibility of the 'man of the house', caring for his siblings, including Yamen. The toddler was found wrapped in a soiled blanket.

Syrian children and a caregiver sat together
UNICEF/ Syrian Arab Republic 2017/ Khudr Issa

Children at the home are cared for by the “Aunties” a nick name given by the children for the 12 caregivers at the orphanage they now call home.

A new home

The children were brought to the UNICEF-supported home where they had warm showers, hot meals and clean clothes for the first time in weeks.

“When they arrived at the home, they were in the worst conditions imaginable,” says a staff member, who was among the first to receive the children.

“They were shocked, they hadn’t showered in so long. They were covered in ashes because of the wood they were burning to warm up. Their hair was full of lice and the little baby was crying uncontrollably.”

The siblings were placed under the care of the “Aunties” a nick name the children gave the 12 caregivers at the orphanage they now call home.

Their only wish was not to be separated from each other.

Syrian girl sat on a bed
UNICEF/ Syrian Arab Republic 2017/ Khudr Issa

When a family fleeing eastern Aleppo late December found Nour, she was terrified and alone amidst the rubble. On the way to a safe shelter, she kept screaming “Mama, Papa!” but her parents were nowhere to be found. Nour now lives at the orphanage where she’s cared for by the Aunties. No information has surfaced on her parent’s whereabouts.

Back to school

Two weeks ago, staff members at the home enrolled the children in a nearby school. Mohammad and Hanadi were excited to return to school, and it was the first time Doha and Ibrahim had seen the inside of a classroom.

At the shelter, they live with other children in similar situations. Nour, a two-year-old toddler, was rescued from the rubble by a family fleeing eastern Aleppo in December 2016. Terrified, injured and confused, the little girl was transferred with the family to a shelter on the outskirts of Aleppo and then moved to the orphanage while efforts are made to find her family. The “Aunties” named her Nour – meaning light. No information has surfaced as to the whereabouts of her family.

The temporary home offers children a protective environment to restore some normality into children’s abnormal lives. The children wake up at seven in the morning to have breakfast together before school. Every day after school, they receive extra classes covering different subjects to help them catch up with their peers.

"We try to make their life as comfortable as possible," says Mohammad, a staff member at the orphanage. "On weekends, we all go out to parks to play and have fun like one big family!"

Les meilleures amies Rama (à gauche) et Esraa (à droite) ont toutes deux perdu leur famille dans les combats à Alep est.
UNICEF/ Syrian Arab Republic 2017/Khudr Issa
Les meilleures amies Rama (à gauche) et Esraa (à droite) ont toutes deux perdu leur famille dans les combats à Alep est. « On partage tout », dit Esraa de sa meilleure amie. « La nourriture, les habits, les histoires et les secrets. »
A glimpse of hope

Working with partners on the ground, UNICEF has identified 324 unaccompanied and separated children in Aleppo. The children have been referred to safe temporary homes while UNICEF and local NGO partners try to trace parents, the closest surviving relatives or extended family members.

Having witnessed so many horrors in their few years of life, many of the children need psychosocial support.

Luckily, there is a glimpse of hope in the house with the welcoming green door.

In January, after living in the temporary home for four months, the six siblings were reunited with their uncle. After months of searching, the referral unit at the home succeeded in locating him. He is the closest surviving relative after their parents were killed in fighting in east Aleppo.

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