Twelve years on, Syrian children endure one brutal crisis after another
Children in Syria have endured hardships for years, including conflict, natural disasters and public health crises
Maysaa was an infant when Syria’s conflict began in March 2011. Now 13, she and her friends know first-hand how conflict can impact on every aspect of life. In fact, they have no memory of their country at peace.
15 March 2023 should be a sobering reminder to the world that most children in Syria have endured 12 years of continued displacement, as their families moved from one area to another, desperately seeking stability and safety. They have lived through 12 years of disrupted schooling, with limited access to healthcare and other essential services. Many parents and caregivers lost their jobs and are unable to find employment, and the prices of staple food, if they’re available at all, have skyrocketed. The long-term impact of conflict, natural disasters and health emergencies in Syria have resulted in one of the world’s most complex and multi-layered humanitarian environments – and children are the ones who bear the greatest burden.
Israa is a mother of two. Her husband died during the conflict, and she’s been raising her daughters, aged 11 and 10, alone ever since. Life for the family has been a constant struggle. Money is scarce, and they live in a place that has no electricity.
“Conflict, crisis, displacement, hunger, humiliation and an earthquake. My daughters did not experience their childhood, I feel so sorry for them. And I didn’t have a life at all.”
Since the conflict began, millions of children and their families have been forced to flee their familiar surroundings, in search of safer places. This internal displacement has seen many vulnerable children and their families move to urban areas often ending up in camps and slums there. The deprivations in migrating populations include loss of access to healthcare services. This, along with overcrowding, poor sanitation, and a lack of access to clean water and educational opportunities increases the risk of reoccurring outbreaks and the re-emergence of vaccine-preventable diseases.
The grim situation for children
Today, with the economic situation deteriorating further, and widespread food, fuel and electricity shortages, nearly 7 million children require humanitarian assistance in Syria. Basic household items - like toiletries, cleaning supplies and groceries - are often depleted, and not readily available.
Rana is a grandmother who lives in rural Damascus with her family, including her 1.5-year-old grandson, Ishak, who has been diagnosed with a moderate form of malnutrition.
“We can’t afford dairy products, chicken, meat or fruit. It seems our poor diet affected the health of my daughter-in-law when she was pregnant, “Rana says. “I believe it also impacted little Ishak’s health.” From birth until the age of six months, Ishak was breastfed. He then had difficulties in adjusting to solid food as part of his diet. His asthma attacks, sometimes lasting for days, made things worse.
“We can’t afford dairy products, chicken, meat or fruit. It seems our poor diet affected the health of my daughter-in-law when she was pregnant. I believe it also impacted little Ishak’s health.”
“Ishak started walking and teething later than other children in his age,” his mother, Abir, said.
Due to long years of conflict, there is severe lack of primary healthcare and nutrition services in many parts of the country. Even if accessible, many people cannot afford to pay for the services.
With 90 percent of the country living in poverty, many families have resorted to negative coping mechanisms, including child marriage, child labour, under eating and excessive debt. All of these have major implications for the wellbeing of children and places them at great risk.
Crisis upon crisis
It’s not hard to see why mothers like Israa and Abir feel their children have been robbed of their childhoods. Twelve years into the conflict, Syria is facing a new crisis: malnutrition, made visible by a high prevalence of stunting, increasing levels of acute malnutrition, and emergency levels of anaemia among children and women of reproductive age. Stunting refers to impaired growth and development, due to insufficient nutrition. In 2023, approximately 5.9 million people – including 3.75 million children and 2.1 million women – across the country are in dire need of nutritional assistance. Malnourished children are at heightened risk of getting severely ill. When children get sick, their immune system becomes weaker and they are even more susceptible to malnutrition and its effects.
“Health services here are very poor,” says Ferial Salim. She is a mother of four living in an informal settlement. “Most of the time when there is no water in this settlement, we fetch it from the river. It is not clean, but this is the only source we have,” she explained.
“Health services here are very poor. Most of the time when there is no water in this settlement, we fetch it from the river. It is not clean, but this is the only source we have.”
Significant numbers of Syrian families continue to reside in overcrowded displacement sites, especially in northern Syria. When access to water is limited and good sanitation is not available, the risk of disease outbreaks increases.
In September 2022, a cholera outbreak was declared in Syria. Tens of thousands of suspected cases were reported countrywide.
“Cholera is knocking on the door. We are not sure if the water we buy is clean and our concerns of it being infected are increasing. But what can we do? We have no option but to drink the water that is available to us,” says Nada Alhasan, a mother of three.
“Cholera is knocking on the door. We are not sure if the water we buy is clean and our concerns of it being infected are increasing. But what can we do? We have no option but to drink the water that is available to us.”
In Syria, nearly half of the people rely on alternative, and often unsafe, water sources to meet or complement their water needs. Poor water quality tends to lead to more waterborne diseases, including diarrhoea, particularly among children.
Like the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic had a severe impact on life in Syria. These public health outbreaks, as well as the impact of the deadly earthquakes, are putting pressure on Syria’s already over-burdened public health services and healthcare delivery in the country. Prior to the earthquakes, half of the primary health care system was offline. Two out of five sub-districts did not have functional primary healthcare facilities, forcing families to either delay medical care or take long trips if they could afford it. Currently, only an estimated 20,000 physicians remain in Syria.
“I herded our neighbours’ sheep every day from early morning till sunset. It was exhausting, but what saddened me the most, was skipping school. I also missed my friends.”
As the crisis in Syria enters its 13th year, conflict in several parts of the country continues unabated, particularly in the northwest, leaving children fearing attacks, at risk of displacement, and often missing out on school.
“I herded our neighbours’ sheep every day from early morning till sunset. It was exhausting, but what saddened me the most, was skipping school. I also missed my friends,” said Ahmad. He worked to support the family and pay for his father’s much needed medical treatment and medicine.
The devastating impact of the earthquakes
The dire humanitarian situation in Syria was exacerbated in the early hours of 6 February 2023, when a 7.7 magnitude earthquake rocked Syria and south-east Türkiye. Later that same day, a second earthquake followed, this time measuring 7.6 magnitude, with thousands of powerful aftershocks. These earthquakes destroyed homes, schools and places where children could gather to play. The impact of this natural disaster has been catastrophic, forcing half a million people from their homes, often with just the clothes on their backs, and leaving them in desperate conditions.
“I made sure to take this sweater with me on the night of the earthquake, because it was a gift from my aunt,” 9-year-old Shahed says at a shelter , touching the only familiar item she has with her.
The earthquakes have shattered any remaining sense of safety and added another seemingly unsurmountable layer of suffering for vulnerable children and their families.
“I made sure to take this sweater with me on the night of the earthquake, because it was a gift from my aunt.”
Naya left her home due to the earthquake. She currently lives at a collective shelter with her mother and brother. Her brother has a psychological disability, and his care requires most of his mother’s time.
“I was scared when my mom left me to look for my brother. She wanted to find him so that we could escape together from the earthquake,” Naya says. She is becoming used to the shelter now, and calls it “this home”, but she still misses her old one.
“I like to bake and used to bake at my home. Here we can’t bake. We don’t have the ingredients or an oven,” Naya says at the shelter.
Reaching children against the odds, despite the barriers
The funding requirements for Syria, to ensure UNICEF reaches children like Naya and Shahed, are substantial. Even before the earthquakes, the Syria Humanitarian Action for Children 2023 appeal was significantly underfunded, with only a fraction of the US$ 328.5 million needed being secured. Now, with the added strain of the earthquakes, the situation has become even more urgent. $172.7 million is required to provide immediate life-saving assistance for 5.4 million people (including 2.6 million children) impacted by the earthquakes in Syria.
“Everyone should know there’s beauty in overcoming life’s challenges. Did you know that there are plenty of great scientists and inventors with disabilities? They achieved great things, and so will I.”
In 2014, Mahmoud was injured by the shrapnel of a shell that fell outside his home. As a result of this, he lost his sight in his left eye and the ability to use his left hand and leg. This life-altering event has not broken Mahmoud’s spirit. Now in Grade 10, he had this to say:
“Everyone should know there’s beauty in overcoming life’s challenges. Did you know that there are plenty of great scientists and inventors with disabilities? They achieved great things, and so will I.” Through UNICEF’s Integrated Social Protection programme for children with disabilities, children, like Mahmoud, benefit from cash assistance and case management services. Mahmoud’s positive attitude in the face of great adversity is mirrored throughout Syria.
UNICEF calls on all stakeholders to urgently redouble efforts to invest in providing access to healthcare and nutrition, clean and safe water, sanitation, and other essential services for all children in the country.