How to comprehend the brutal conflict that has enveloped Syria for almost seven years?
A small but heavily populated country on the other side of the world, that few of us will ever visit, with many competing sides and interests, and seemingly little in common with Aotearoa.
Perhaps the easiest way is to consider the people being affected by it. Mums and dads, children and grandparents. Farmers, and cafe workers, and nurses, and neighbours. They are just like us. They are people who were happily going about daily life, until that life was torn apart by conflict and chaos.
As a reporter on sadly-defunct currents affairs programme, Campbell Live, many moons ago, I’d regularly hear the lazy assertion: “we don’t have poverty in NZ.” Or, “children here aren’t starving or freezing to death.” Or, “there’s no need in NZ, not compared to overseas.”
Now, besides the fact that, generally speaking, it’s a terrible argument, in Syria there’s a humanitarian crisis that fits all those criteria. Yet we now have people saying “we need to worry about our own backyard first.”
Why do people say this stuff? Is it mischief-making? Willful ignorance? Or just utter disdain?
These are not mutually exclusive arguments. It is possible to strive to improve conditions for at-risk children living in New Zealand, and to also provide urgent and life-saving support to at-risk children living overseas.
New Zealand has issues, but New Zealand also has systems, support, government and infrastructure that can be used to address those issues. Granted, they may not always work as well as they could, but they’re a hell of a lot better than what millions of Syrian children currently have access to.
For almost seven years now, millions of Syrian children have lived with utter chaos. They’ve been exposed to unimaginable levels of violence and disruption. Their homes and communities have been destroyed, their friends and family killed, their lives turned upside down.
Over recent months the conflict has eased, but parts of Syria remain besieged. Mortars are still being fired into the old city of Damascus. Communities are still subjected to military air-strikes. Recently the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that almost 1000 civilians were killed – in September alone.
More than five million people have fled Syria. Around 2.5m Syrian children are registered as refugees in surrounding countries. Within Syria, there are another six million children affected by the fighting.
Passing national exams is a gateway to higher education and a better future, but right now one in three schools is out of service and an estimated 1.75m children are out of school.
And with winter approaching, millions more children are at risk. Food in besieged areas is both scarce and expensive. Children are suffering from malnutrition. Last winter, babies and children froze to death because they had no access to aid. That cannot be allowed to happen again.
Recently, Unicef NZ travelled with NewsHub’s Mike McRoberts to Syria. We visited the ruined cities of Homs, and Hama, and saw many other communities that had been utterly devastated. Mike says one of the things that struck him was the impact the conflict has had on children – he could see it upon their faces. But he also heard about their dreams, and aspirations. It seems that six brutal years of conflict have not killed their hope.
What we are seeing from those children is a desire to return to normality.
We are seeing children eager to get back into school, and young people wanting to prepare for work.
We hear from children who wants to be doctors, or teachers, or social workers – children who want to grow up to help those who have been harmed themselves.
Isn’t that a wonderful thing?
Despite everything they have experienced, the children of Syria are hoping that conditions will get better, that their lives will improve, and that they can achieve their dreams, whatever those dreams may be.
UNICEF is there to ensure that those dreams can happen.
To support Unicef’s work with Syrian children, please visit unicef.org.nz/syria