By Rachel Brock
The war in Syria has always held international implications. Pro-democracy rallies in March 2011 were closely monitored by the rest of the world. The resulting nationwide protests demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster were championed as the next wave in the Arab Spring. Syria was to be the next Tunisia or Libya, an example of the irrepressible nature of democracy and the power of the common person. But this view quickly changed. As violence escalated, sectarian groups formed, and jihadist elements emerged, the international community felt itself violently tugged into the war-torn region.
Five years later, the war in Syria remains one of the world’s most pressing concerns. No longer a beacon of democratic aspiration, Syria embodies the grimier aspects of political change. Over 11 million people have been forced to flee their homes. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that over 13.5 million Syrians require humanitarian assistance within Syria. A report by a Syrian research group estimates that almost 500,000 people have been killed since the war began, and frames this staggering number against a background of other horrifying statistics. The proxy war between the United States, Iran, and Russia captivates international attention. The Islamic State continues to shock the world with brutal public displays of violence and alarming territorial gains. The refugee crisis has paralyzed global institutions and deeply divided policymakers, humanitarians, and societies about how to address the incredible influx of displaced Syrians.
These facts feel almost fantastic in their grotesqueness. What would the United States do if everyone who lives in New York City and Chicago were suddenly forced from their homes? What would it feel like if every 1 in 10 people you know were wounded or killed? As outside observers, we grapple with these terrible implications. As adults, we struggle to superimpose what our lives would be like if we lived in Syria. How much more terrible, then, it must be to be a child living these realities.
Syrian children are too often forgotten. They are either lumped into large statistics of refugees, showcased as examples of failed humanitarian intervention, or prepped during interviews to be used as propaganda. As with most humanitarian crises, the world focuses on macro numbers and ignores the shattered individual lives.
Syria’s children will grow up to be a damaged, scarred, but persevering population. These children have watched their sisters and fathers be murdered by sectarian groups, have hidden in barrels as bombs fell on their cities, have lived in overcrowded tents in foreign countries, and have been beaten on the streets for being Syrian refugees. They become the main breadwinners at ages when children in developed countries learn cursive. Those who have been born since the war began most likely do not possess birth certificates or other forms of identification. In our time of endless passports, border checks, and official paperwork, do these children officially exist? Of course the international community cannot deny their existence, but questions remain about how to take care of these children now, and how to reintegrate them back into everyday life once the war ends.
These children have been forced to grow up too quickly. The full impact of the war on children will truly unfold as time passes, but many children already experience night terrors, PTSD, and other war-caused psychological issues. Most long for a return to “normal” life, when children could play on rooftops or go to the shore with their families. Yasmeen Mohammed, an 11-year-old girl from Eastern Ghouta, Syria, sadly remembers the past: “All I want to do is go back to my school in Syria and see my friends.”
The international community must focus on promoting peace in Syria to end the suffering for the millions of innocent children. The children have watched their childhoods be destroyed by hate, violence, and humanity’s inability to peacefully reconcile its differences. Mohammed Bandra, age 12, reminds us that he, like other Syrian children, still dream about the future, despite his nightmarish present: “I want to become a doctor to help people.” Children such as Mohammed still aspire to help others, despite their experiencing with the world as a cruel and unforgiving place. This, more so than any brokered peace agreement or startling statistic, should be what the global community promotes moving forward. This uncompromising compassion is what gives hope for the future.
Rachel Brock is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in International Relations and minoring in French.