Andreas Papp, Director of Emergency Response for SOS Children’s Villages International,
was in Syria in early March to visit SOS programmes in Damascus and Aleppo. He talks about what he saw and what can be done to help Syria's youngest generation.
Mr Papp visited the SOS Children’s Villages Child Friendly Space at a shelter for families that have fled Aleppo, the kitchen in the Aleppo suburb run in partnership with SOS Children’s Villages Syria that distributes food to an estimated 18,000 people daily, and our water distribution points the city’s devastated eastern region. He also toured damaged schools in Aleppo.
Aleppo has been a major battleground throughout much of the Syrian civil war that began in March 2011. The city was relatively quiet, Mr Papp says, though sporadic fighting and shelling continue.
How would you describe the condition of the children you met?
Children look at you with empty and sad eyes. When you ask them what they want or need, they tell you what they want is football, things to play with and clothing. The mothers say they only have winter clothes and will need clothing for the coming summer months. Shoes are urgently needed for a lot of children. They need school supplies and they need schools so they can learn but also so that parents can concentrate during the day on income-generating activities.
Everywhere I went I asked children what they want to become when they are older. They told me they want to become a baker, a doctor or a teacher – all the things they don’t have.
What are the urgent needs of children?
A lot of the children who have been brought to us – such as those in the interim care centres in Damascus – their stories are shocking. Children have seen their parents killed, or, when the fighting ended in their community, they found the bodies of their parents. The trauma and the mental health of children is something that we need to immediately address through activities, psychological and emotional support, and we also need much more support for our teams who work with these children. We need training for the caretakers so they are better prepared to identify trauma cases and to begin trauma therapy.
Medical care is also a problem. A lot of the doctors and nurses left during the fighting and have not returned. There is a lack of qualified staff, including paediatricians and gynaecologists. There needs to be education in family planning. This is why we are offering medical services with two doctors and nurses to assist women and children at one of the main shelters outside Aleppo.
What were the conditions like during your time in Aleppo?
Andreas Papp, right, speaks with children at a shelter for displaced families near Aleppo. Photo: SOS Children’s Villages Syria/March 2017
In the eastern parts there is nothing – there is no electricity, no running water. We are providing 16 water tanks to help those still living there. I visited one of these distribution points and spoke to a man who said that it is not enough, that we need to go to other parts of the old town where there is a need for much more water.
In the east of Aleppo, you don’t see that many people. You see some people who come back to what still remains of their houses or who are leaving again. Some of them are trying to go back to block the entrances to their houses because of looting. But there is not one single house in the eastern part that is intact. People are moving back and people want to move back. … But looking at these houses, no one really knows which houses can be used and renovated, and there is still the fear of unexploded bombs.
I will never forget when we were travelling through the eastern part of Aleppo and it was mostly deserted. Then we came close to the western part where you have small shops and life starts again. We were driving in a street when all of a sudden there were screaming children and our cars were stuck. A school was finishing and all the children all of a sudden the children poured into the street. The street was full of children doing the things they usually do, running around playing. In this nearly dead city, life was back.
This is where we need to head. We will lose another generation if we don’t provide education to them now, and we need to provide support for what they have been through, to help them get over the trauma that could otherwise have an impact on their lives for a very long time.
No single organisation can help everyone. What can SOS Children’s Villages do best to help those in need?
Food, water, medical care for families are urgently needed and we try to respond to these needs as well as we can. But these can be provided by specialised NGOs and they could take over these services from us. That would allow SOS Children’s Villages to concentrate on mental health, psychological and emotional support as well as education for children. This is where we can expand our already major role in caring for children.
Aleppo residents queue up at a water tanker provided by SOS Children’s Villages. Photo: SOS Children’s Villages Syria/March 2017
Read more about our emergency relief work in Syria.