Risking a lost generation in the Middle East
From Syria to Gaza and Iraq, some 11million people have been forced to flee their homes, because of conflict and urgently need help. This comes on top of chronic emergencies in the region, such as malnutrition in Yemen.
So many of those affected are children – under-15s make up over 30% of the population of the Middle East and North Africa. The impact of these crises is felt most of all by those children. They are born into situations they cannot control, yet they bear the brunt of war, displacement, and social and economic turmoil.
If we do not act to stem the crisis and ensure children are able to continue their lives and education, we run the risk of losing a generation of children.
Through Save the Children’s work, I have met children all over the world who have been through terrible experiences in wars and natural disasters. But some of the things I have seen and heard in the Middle East have shocked me the most.
Speaking to 13-year-old Walid, for example, a Syrian refugee who told me in short, stilted sentences about the severed body parts he had found in the burnt-out shell of his grandfather’s house.
Hearing those young Syrian voices talking about rocket attacks, of limbs littering the streets, of dead family members, brings home the terrible price paid by the region’s children for political failures.
Children paying the ultimate price
There are the immediate and visceral impacts of conflicts on children – lost limbs, lost homes, lost lives. More than 400 children have been killed in the latest short war in Gaza, and thousands more have been injured.
In Iraq, over half of the 1.2m people who have been forced to leave their homes are children. There are horrifying reports of babies and toddlers from Iraq’s Yazidi community, fleeing for their lives in the searing heat, dying of thirst and exposure.
And in Syria, whose brutal civil war has played out for more than three years, over 10,000 children have lost their lives. Millions more have been displaced. Most people cannot fail to be moved by this horrible roll-call of child suffering.
When journalists show their plight, it often prompts the public to donate to aid agencies and governments to pledge greater funds for humanitarian relief. This is important, and allows us to provide immediate, life-saving help to families in desperate situations.
Long term damage
But once the news crews move away and the fighting subsides, children will continue to pay the price for these conflicts. The long-term impacts are huge and devastating.
The psychological trauma inflicted when children lose their parents, see their homes destroyed, or experience torture, is not easily alleviated, particularly when they have to remain in the stressful and unfamiliar environment of a refugee camp.
Save the Children’s staff see the signs of this in places like Syria and Gaza, from night terrors and bed wetting to children who refuse to speak. The impact, too, on children’s education, cannot be over-estimated.
Students across the Middle East are due to be going back to school this month to start the new term – but many will find that their school has been bombed, or occupied by the military, or is now home to hundreds of displaced families.
It is thought that 90% of Syrian refugee children do not go to school. Some of them are now three years into their exile from home – what are the chances for them to complete their education and fulfill their hopes and dreams?
Hope to war to hope again?
The current situation is all the more galling when we think back to the positivity and energy in the region in 2011, when the Arab Spring swept through autocratic states.
These were uprisings driven in large part by young people, who wanted greater freedom and opportunity. Children born in 2011 in the Middle East had the prospect of a better future dangled in front of them – but that risks being snatched away.
The international community, as well as local governments and civil society, must do more to protect civilians now and meet their basic needs. But we have to go further and ensure that a generation of children is not lost to war and suffering.
We have it in our power to make a difference, by working to keep children in school, even in conflicts, helping children overcome trauma and most importantly finding lasting political solutions in the region that put the lives of children first.
This blog post first appeared in the Huffington Post