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UNICEF: Generation in ruins in Syria

Nicolas Martin / ntNovember 30, 2015

As Syria approaches five years since the beginning of its civil war, millions of children are dependent on aid. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, about 11,000 children have been killed, according to UNICEF.

Syria Aleppo
Image: picture-alliance/landov/al-Halbi

Nuha is 11 years old and lives in Homs, a city that has been destroyed in Syria's civil war. She remembers exactly where every building stood, she tells a UNICEF worker: "That was the house of my friend Sarah." Both in the country and abroad, more than 8 million Syrian children depend on humanitarian aid.

"After nearly five years of war in Syria, the lives of a whole generation of children and youths lie in ruins," Christian Schneider, the director of UNICEF Germany, said upon the release of the organization's latest report on the war. With winter approaching, things could get worse.

Christian Schneider Unicef Germany
Christian Schneider, UNICEF GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S.Pilick

Nuha remembers exactly how her 19-year-old brother, Sa'adou, was killed by an artilllery shell as he was buying some ice cream. Such memories will remain forever, the psychologist Jan Kizilhan said: "For children such a war situation in many aspects is a heavy burden because a lot of what they knew before has been completely unhinged." According to UNICEF, about 11,000 children have been killed since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011. Just last year, the UN agency reported about 60 attacks on schools. "In the whole of Syria, there is not one single safe place for children," said Hanaa Singer, head of UNICEF Syria.

Born in the refugee camp

Even children who are able to flee Syria do not escape the suffering. In addition to being a psychologist, Kizilhan is a professor of social services in the southern town of Villingen Schwenningen. He also recently returned from a medical assignment to Iraq. There he also examined Syrian children who with their parents were able to escape the "Islamic State." "Some children wet themselves due to the traumatic circumstances," he said. "They became aggressive and some were totally depraved. One of the children held the mother's hand tightly every night."

Jordan Zaatari refugee camp
Zaatari refugee camp in JordanImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Mazraawi

According to UNICEF, 2 million Syrian children have taken refuge in neighboring Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan; a considerable number have also fled to Egypt. Many have not been to school for years - instead they help their parents at work. Some of these children no longer know their homeland. UNICEF reports that more than 140,000 of these children were born as refugees in the camps that border their parents' homeland.

UNICEF also reports that many donor countries have cut aid to the United Nations. The UN World Food Program, for example, slashed food aid for 360,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan in September, for example. The worsening situation in the refugee camps and few hopes for peace at home are the main reasons why many Syrians now flee to Europe.

Flight sometimes worse than civil war

In its report, UNICEF estimates that nearly two-thirds of the refugees on the Balkan route come from Syria. The UN agency also notes that a growing number of children are traveling alone. On the border of Macedonia, as many as one in four registered children are traveling without their parents.

Unaccompanied minors are especially at risk for violence and exploitation. Members of UNICEF report attacks on women and children in shelters, parks, and bus and railway stations. The UN agency has, therefore, with other relief organizations, erected child-friendly areas and zones for mothers and infants in Macedonia, Croatia and Serbia within the most important registry offices and camps.

"I have examined cases where it was not the events in Syria that had traumatized the children, but the flight," the psychologist Kizilhan said, "one to one and a half years sleeping under bridges, starving and often not knowing how life will continue." UNICEF reports that this year alone more than 200,000 children applied for asylum in the European Union through September.

In Germany, 30,000 unaccompanied minors arrived through October. Even more have come with their parents. Though they might be physically safe for now, UNICEF recommends that they receive psychological care. Kizilhan said there wasn't enough qualified staff in Germany to take care of so many traumatized children.

Jan Kizilhan
Psychologist Jan KizilhanImage: Jan Kizilhan

Four thousand kilometers (2,400 miles) from Germany, Nuha is still in Homs, where she visits a special UNICEF shelter. There she can play and learn and gradually reduce her aggression. But she still hopes that her big brother will come around the corner with that ice cream someday.