April 10 2014

Children Living In War: Three Snapshots from Syria

A newborn baby rescued from the street; refugee kids making the best of rough shelters; a girl, with nothing but the clothes on her back, trying to stay warm through the cold winter – these are just three stories reported by SOS Children´s Villages staff in Syria.

Syrian Civilians Flee Armed Violence, only to Face other Dangers

Before the conflict erupted in Syria, the Hamdanie/Tishreen district of the city of Aleppo was a normal neighbourhood comprising some 100 buildings – many of them under construction.

When the violence began, many people fled their homes and, those who could, moved into collective shelters like schools and mosques, hoping to return to their homes soon.

Three years have now passed, and there is no end to the fighting on the horizon. Schools and mosques are choked with people who cannot return to their homes. For schools, this means diverting resources from their intended function as educational centres for children, and turning them into housing for families made homeless by the violence.

Syrian families forced from their homes by fighting and bomb strikes have taken refuge in unfinished buildings like this one. Tragically, some children have fallen from the unfinished stairways and died. Photo credit: SOS Children´s Villages
Yet even the schools do not provide enough space for the overflow of displaced people. With no other place to go, many people fleeing the conflict have sought refuge in buildings that are still under construction.

At the end of February, an SOS Children’s Villages Syria team paid a visit to Hamdanie/Tishreen to see how people were living.

When they reached the building known as `Number 107´ they found that it not only lacked doors and windows, but also walls and stairs. Its refugee occupants had hung up plastic sheets to make a little privacy for the 13 families living on one floor.The team descended to the ground floor on stairways without sides or railings. A number of children, excited because of the rare visitors, jostled each other to follow the group. Then six-year-old Ahmad fell from the second floor, because of the absence of a stair railing.
Ahmad, who was knocked unconscious and whose head was bleeding, was rushed by his father to the closest medical centre two kilometres away. The SOS team accompanied them to the hospital where Ahmad was diagnosed with a fractured skull and haemorrhaging.

Ahmad was lucky: he survived a fall from the second floor of the construction site where he and his family are living. Other refugee children were not so lucky. Photo credit: SOS Children´s Villages

This was not, the SOS team was told, the first time that children had fallen like that in the unsafe buildings where they were living as refugees.

In fact, people living in the same building as Ahmad said he was the fifth child to fall from the stairs in less than a month, noting that other children his age had tragically died when they fell.
If these refugees had had any option for safer shelter, those children would be alive. The terrible irony is that they fled from the risk of dying in conflict only to die in a place of `refuge´.

‘God’s Gift’ in the Midst of War

While an SOS Children’s Villages Syria team distributed winter clothes at the Al Radwan mosque in the Al Hamdanie/Tishreen district of Aleppo, they kept hearing about a baby girl named Hibatu Allah.

The sheikh of the mosque explained that Hibatu Allah had been given her name by a couple who were now caring for her. She had been found in a plastic bag by a 10-year-old boy. The sheikh said the boy had come running into the mosque, horrified at what he had just found: there was a black plastic bag on the pavement and it was moving.

“I went with the boy and some of the neighbors to find out what was moving inside the bag, and people started gathering around as we arrived,” the sheikh said.

They opened the black plastic bag to find a newborn baby girl. She appeared to have been abandoned immediately after being born.

Baby ´Hiba´, who was discovered in a plastic bag, abandoned on the street, was adopted by a childless couple. Her name means ´God´s Gift´. Photo credit: SOS Children´s Villages

No one knew who the mother could be, and it was suggested that maybe the mother had left her close to the mosque so that people would find her and take care of her.

Yahya and Aysha, a married couple without children, believed they were meant to find the baby and raise her as their own daughter. The sheikh accepted their request to take care of the baby and be her adoptive family. Yahya and Aysha chose to name her Hibatu Allah which means ‘God's gift.´ They consider her the gift of their life.

Little Hibatu Allah, `Hiba´for short, receives infant milk from SOS Children´s Villages, and is therefore now directly benefiting from the presence of SOS Children’s Villages in Syria.

A Girl, Displaced by War, Dreams of ‘Home’

Rayan, a 12 year old Syrian girl, and her family, fled armed clashes in her neighbourhood, Joub Al Koube, to move into a basement with three other families. They were not able to take any of their clothes or furniture.

The basement is crowded with 21 people including Rayan´s married sister and her two children. Rayan´s father works as a night guard for $66 a month.

The basement has just one main door and no interior rooms. Such a living space buries feelings, dreams, hearts and smiles.

“I'm really bored of lentils,” says Rayan. Her family are displaced and living in a basement with three more familes. Most days they only have lentils and bread to eat. Photo credit: SOS Children´s Villages

When asked how they handle the winter cold, Rayan responds: “We don't have any heating in our basement. All we have is an old brazier in which we burn different things to produce heat. Sometimes we also put sticks and stones on top of it and use it for cooking. Other times, we have to use our neighbour’s kitchen to cook, because we don't have any kitchen utensils to use.”

She adds: “We can't use this heating method all the time, because my mom says our space is very crowded, and if we burn things day and night, we might suffocate at night.”

As for sleeping: “We put a thin blanket on the floor and sleep on top of it it. It's just a thin blanket that we put on the floor and we use another one as a cover. We only have this one blanket, so we all sleep beside each other to get warm; but sometimes I sleep in my jeans, because I only have one pair of pyjamas and when I wash them, I have to sleep in the same clothes I'm wearing now. Besides that, the clothes I'm wearing now are also thicker than my pyjamas.”

She adds: “The shower is a nightmare for me because my mom says the way we heat the water is very dangerous. We have a metal barrel that we keep water inside. When we want to heat the water we put something called an `electrical spool´ in it. You can't put your hand in the water or get close to the metal barrel when the spool is inside, because if you touch it you'll get an electric shock and die. Lots of children my age at school who are also displaced use the same method to take a shower.”
Asked if she goes to school, Rayan says: “Yes of course. I'm a very good student.” But when Rayan returns from school she doesn’t have much in the way of food to look forward to.
“I'm really bored of lentils,” she says sadly. “I don't bother asking my mom about food, because I already know that it is going to be lentils with some bread almost every day. It's just lentils without anything but bread.”
What does Rayan do with her free time? “My girlfriends and I watch TV at our neighbour’s house. Rayan says boys are very naughty, but girls are quieter. We also play together in the backyard with the boys, but there are a lot of us, and it doesn't take long before we start fighting. Because the games we play can get violent sometimes.”
Rayan’s biggest dream is to have a home. Notably, she never calls the place where she is living now "home". For Rayan, and thousands of other displaced Syrian children, home remains but a distant dream.