SOS Children’s Villages is joining other international organisations to provide urgently needed care and food assistance to the besieged west Syrian town of Madaya. An SOS response team, which is preparing to enter the town with an aid convoy on 14 January, will focus on helping affected children.
“Our priority is to find children separated from their parents and those suffering from severe malnutrition who can benefit from our Interim Care Centre and nutritional programme,” said SOS Syria’s national director Rani Rahmo. “The UN representative we have spoken with has identified that there are no gaps in food distribution as this is taken care of by large specialised organisations in food distribution including the World Food Program. SOS Syria will focus on what we do best, supporting the needs of children.”
Ahmed Hussien, leader of SOS Children’s Villages’ rapid assessment team, said: “It is currently cold and raining as we are in the middle of the winter season. Madaya is located on high ground between the mountains.
The estimated 42,000 desperate residents had not received any aid since October 2015, until early Tuesday morning. We do not have a clear picture yet of the number of children who may be unaccompanied in Madaya, however we know that the situation there is dire. This is why the rapid assessment is so essential – to establish what we can do that will have the greatest impact for the children in this area.”
The United Nations estimates that at least 400 people in Madaya are critically undernourished. Six children were among the 23 people who reportedly starved to death in Madaya in December, according to Médecins Sans Frontières.
SOS Children’s Villages communications advisor Abeer Pamuk, who was among the relief workers waiting to enter the town on 11 January, spoke to members of a family who are separated from a brother and son trapped inside Madaya.
Children on the frontline
Amr* is a 10-year-old boy from Madaya. He spent the entire day on Monday sitting on the sidewalk, watching the more than 40 cars of different aid agencies which had been trying to enter the town to deliver food for the starving, besieged population.
Amr’s house was not far from where he sat, but he could not go there.
“Can you please take me inside with you, in one of these cars, so I can see my brother?” he asked me, while I waited along with the other workers for the green light to go in.
Amr’s father was killed in the Syrian war that erupted nearly five years ago. Amr remembers almost nothing about him.
“My brother is 26-years-old and he is like a father to me. I don’t know my father and it’s been seven months since I last saw my brother. I hope he won’t die like people are dying inside Madaya,” Amr said.
“I would like to give you my older son’s photo, so maybe you could find him, if you are able to go in,” said Amr’s mother. “But he’s probably unrecognisable now.”
“I asked him to send me photos of himself and his wife now, but he wouldn’t, because he says they look like skeletons now. I can’t sleep at night imagining what my son might look like now,” she said with tears in her eyes.
“How can we eat when we know that our family is inside and can’t find even a piece of bread? I choke with tears every time I try to eat,” she added. “We, the adults, might be able to bear more than little children can, especially now in winter.”
Madaya is one of many Syrian communities suffering from shortages of basic necessities, and Amr and his family are among millions of Syrians affected by the conflict. The United Nations estimates that 13.5 million people, of whom 5.6 million are children, have been displaced since 2011. Around one in every five of the country’s 22.5 million people live in hard-to-reach areas. The conflict has disrupted nearly all facets of life, including education.
SOS Children’s Villages' current programmes in Syria include the SOS Education Center in Aleppo, the SOS Interim Care Centre in Aleppo, the SOS UASC Care Center in Saboura, the SOS UASC Care Center in Al Qura, and Child Friendly Places in Dailaa, Kafrsoose, and Aleppo.
Amr, his mother and sister were still living in Madaya for three months under the siege that began in mid-2015. His 11-year-old sister Nadia was the only one who managed to get food for the family.
Nadia used to make the dangerous, one-hour trip over the mountain and through the woods to leave Madaya and bring back a kilogramme each of sugar, rice, and maybe some lentils, to help her family survive.
“I couldn’t go through the normal way because they wouldn’t let me out,” said Nadia’s mother. “I knew it was very dangerous for her to go over the mountain, but I also knew that it was the only hope for my family to eat."
“I was very happy when we were able to leave,” says Nadia, “but now I can’t think about anything but my big brother, because he wasn’t able to come with us. I wish I could go through the mountains again to bring him anything to eat.”
Syrian children in front-line towns like Madaya are not only dying because of hunger, but they are also risking their lives to make dangerous food runs, while avoiding the snipers.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, supplies of food, blankets and hygiene kits were finally permitted to be distributed to besieged Madaya.
*The children’s names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Read more news about how the Syrian conflict is affecting children.