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The lost generation: Syrian aid workers struggle to help orphans

An uprising that was sparked by the children’s graffiti, has also left a severe impact on them

Leila Alwan

Published: Updated:

Five years into Syria's devastating war, and with the conflict still in full swing, aid workers on the ground have plenty of harrowing tales to tell.

The children of Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria, ignited the uprising when they were detained and tortured after writing anti-government graffiti on the walls of a school in March 2011.

An uprising that was sparked by the children’s graffiti, has also left a severe impact on them.

Mahmoud Adam, a worker from a volunteer rescue force called the White Helmets, recalled the moment in August last year he and his team pulled a 6-month-old baby girl from the ruins of a Damascus suburb.

“She was stuck under the rubble of a destroyed building an hour after [President Bashar] al-Assad’s airstrikes killed her entire family,” Adam, 28, told Al Arabiya English.

Adam said the newly-orphaned baby was sent to live with her aunt and relative – a situation which he said is the case for about 80 percent of children who lose their families in the outskirts of Damascus.

mircale baby youtube
mircale baby youtube

In more “difficult” cases where relatives of the child have left the country, or have all died, the child is taken in by local families in the community, he said. Then, the city’s local council works with small organizations, individuals, or volunteer efforts that provide financial support for schooling, medical aid, and living costs, often through donations or sponsors.

According to the rescue worker, who also is the spokesman for the suburb of Douma’s local council, there are no records or cases of international aid organizations creating adoption programs for Syria’s orphans in the area.

“We have not had any cases of families outside of Syria adopting orphans here in the suburbs of Damascus,” said Adam.

“The children inside Syria didn’t only lose family, but also lost education, play time, laughter, and a bright future,” he added.
Abd al-Rahman, the manager of orphan sponsorship in the Human Aid Syria group, which operates in the northwestern province of Idlib, said that when a child loses all family members, their name is put on a list.

Mahmoud Adam, a worker from the White Helmets attends a party for the orphans in Douma, Syria.

He said partnering international organizations then find donors who sponsor the orphans, which costs between $50 to $100 a month.

“Unfortunately, not all the Syrian orphans get sponsorship because of the increase in the numbers of orphans. Sadly this means the child’s schooling stops, and the chance of child labor increases,” Rahman told Al Arabiya English.

Samer Bouidani, from Douma, is a volunteer with Molham Volunteering Team, a nonprofit organization that ensures aid to Syrians inside the war-torn country, and also Syrian refugees living abroad. He helps orphans who reside in Ghouta, another suburb outside of Damascus which is currently controlled by the Free Syrian Army rebel group.

The 25-year-old said most orphans stay with relatives, or families from the neighborhood.

He said that his team provides a monthly allowance to ensure the living cost for these children.

Bouidani added that he and other volunteers visit the child daily, where they ensure the child’s safety, take the child out to play, and also take them to school.

Rebuilding lives

Bouidani also volunteers at a children’s orphanage center.

He said the children who have witnessed their family’s death first hand through airstrikes are usually “traumatized” and need extra care.

“During the first month after the child has lost family, the child is in a very nervous state and tends to isolate themselves and lose their appetite,” he said.

Bouidani told Al Arabiya English what he called an “unforgettable” story about 8-year-old Ahmad, who lost his mother, father, and brother through airstrikes and had to move in with his aunt.

He said that one day, during non-stop shelling on the city, Ahmad ran out of the house into the streets, prompting his aunt to run after him and try to pull him back into the house.

“Ahmad said he wanted to die just like his parents died, he said: 'what’s the point of living if my mother, father, and brother died?'” Bouidani recalled.

Children celebrate at the center for orphans in Douma, Syria. (Photo credit: Samer Bouidani)

Yasser Barish, the head of The Story of Hope, an aid group based in Idlib, said that most orphans in areas of northwestern Syria not under the control of the regime stay with relatives or local families, due to a lack of orphanages.

“One of the reasons why it’s difficult to for NGOs that deal with this to get involved is the fact that many of these children don’t own a birth certificate or any type of identification card to disclose any information on the child,” he said.

Adoption

The Syrian government’s legal system does not recognize or provide for adoptions of Muslim children, making it almost impossible for families to adopt in Syria.

The policy of the UN's refugee agency does not allow the adoption of refugee children during a time of emergency. According to international law, adoptions during a time of war are illegal, especially if there is a chance that family reunification may be possible after the conflict dies down.

Juliette Touma, a Jordan-based spokeswoman for the UN children's fund UNICEF told Al Arabiya English that over 15,000 unaccompanied children have crossed Syria’s borders into neighboring countries within the past 5 years.

Touma said that UNICEF tries to reunite the unaccompanied children with their families if possible, while some stay in camps and “protected” shelters where she said they receive psychological care, hygiene kits, clothes and education.

“According to our reports, we estimate that there are over 8 million children who are in need of assistance, that number includes 2.4 million refugees in neighboring countries,” she said.

Children soldiers

Syria’s war has created 2.4 million child refugees, killed many and led to the recruitment of children as fighters, some as young as seven, according to UNICEF.

Kholoud Khrais, who leads the Women Against Violence Association told Al Arabiya English that many Syrian orphans are vulnerable to being lured into joining militant groups such as ISIS.

“When a child lost his mother, father, and cannot afford to eat what is going to stop him from joining ISIS?” said Khrais.

“They play on these children’s emotions by calling them ‘the birds of heaven’ and promise them heaven if they fight and die,” she added.

But in Syria, many are left vulnerable including some teens, who are not even orphaned.

Karam al-Hamad, 26, a human rights activist from the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, which is currently under Assad’s forces control, said two of his teenage cousins were forced to be soldiers.

“They were taken from their homes in front of their helpless parents,” wrote Hamad in an email..

The activist said one cousin - who is only 14 - was taken by the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah to a training camp near the airport in the city.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah has long been a key ally to Assad’s regime on ground.

The other cousin, 13, “was taken to a quick military course in the northern side of the city, to fight on the frontline against ISIS,” he said.

The older teen, who has lost his leg, “is now residing in a military hospital in Deir Ezzor.”