This photo sits framed on my desk.
Her name is Hind. She was 15 when we met – a beautiful, smart young woman living with her family in a refugee tent in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.
Two years earlier she had a life not dissimilar to my own daughter’s. A nice comfortable home with roses in the garden, a closet full of clothes and her best friends down the street. Her dad ran the local supermarket and Hind planned to finish school and become a teacher.
Then civil war broke out in Syria.
They fled their home as the city was bombed… heading to the border and into eastern Lebanon.
Imagine for a moment what it would be like to run from your suburb when its under attack. The panic and the fear. No time to pack, nothing to pack your things into anyway. Money soon runs out and work is impossible to find for a family homeless and on the move. Your children can’t go to school. Many neighbouring countries are reluctant to employ and educate these foreign refugees – simply unable to cope with the added strain on their already burdened systems. Overcrowding, transport problems and resentment are creating even more issues.
Its estimated this war has cost Syria US$275 billion. Money which through lost growth opportunities will never be available for education, health and the futures of Syrian children.
So Hind and her family, and millions just like them, are now living in UNHCR tents – either in massive planned refugee camps like the one just across the border in Jordan or randomly pitched in the rubble of vacant blocks throughout Lebanon and Turkey.
When I met Hind’s family their tent was lined with cardboard and draped with a tarpaulin – the desperate preparation for a brutal winter where temperatures plummet below freezing and tents risk collapsing under the weight of the snow.
Inside though it is immaculate. There is a small shelf in the corner showcasing an elaborate tea set, a tiny television in the other and soft mats on the floor that provide seating by day and bedding at night. But Hind’s house-proud mother was embarrassed, repeatedly apologised for their surroundings as she served me thick Turkish coffee.
Many of us have an image of who a refugee is. Maybe a Somalian walking through the African desert or Afghanis packed onto rusty boats . Scenarios we find hard to relate to.
Hind had such an impact on me because her family could have been mine.
Over four million Syrians have fled the war… that is the entire population of Sydney. And half of them are children.
These little ones have seen their fathers tortured or killed. They have seen their homes blown up, dead bodies lying in the streets. They have witnessed such violence that they are deeply traumatised and their mothers struggle to manage them. The stress is pushing many families to breaking point.
That means a whole generation of children growing up terrified, displaced and uneducated. Many of those living in refugee camps play war games and act out the violence they have witnessed. They draw pictures of death. Their drawings are black and red. Others simply draw what they remember of home.
I saw children with horrific injuries, some still shaking with fear. And I met 11 year old Obida who simply stopped speaking the day his classroom was stormed and his teacher shot.
The trauma counselling that will be required for years to come is overwhelming.
13 year old Oujelin now helps his dad working on a farm. They are one of the lucky families to find employment. Oujelin gets up before dawn to ready the fields for planting. But only a year earlier he was topping his classes in maths and Arabic. His school merit certificates were the only things his mother grabbed when they ran from their home. He shows them to me with such pride and wonders if he will ever get the chance to go back.
There is a generation of children who have missed years of education, and may never catch up. One in every four of Syria’s schools has been damaged or destroyed. Less than half of all refugee children are able to access any sort of education.
Tuesday March 15 marks five years since this war began.
And the numbers are staggering. Over 16 million people in Syria and neighbouring countries need assistance. More than 4 million have fled, nearly 7 million are homeless and over 13 million people still in Syria need help. Life expectancy at birth has dropped by 15 years during the five year span of this conflict. 90% of the refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are considered poor. So parents have no choice but to force their primary aged children into work and their very young daughters into marriage.
It is now the largest humanitarian operation in history.
Aid agencies have responded. Last year World Vision mobilised over $100M to help. Household support in Lebanon and education and psychosocial programs for children. Hygiene and health care in Syria. Water and sanitation facilities to refugee camps in Jordan. Food in Iraq and centres to keep women safe from violence.
But so much more is needed. A ceasefire recently brokered by Russia and America appears to be holding, but its fragile and could collapse quickly. It has though given agencies like World Vision a chance to get food to starving Syrians as well as water, blankets, generators for hospitals, medical supplies and fuel.
In the meantime the world struggles to manage so many displaced people.
The strain on neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq is enormous. Infrastructure, schools and health facilities, electricity and water. You can understand why resentment is growing. Lebanon has been the most affected and its GDP is is now 23% lower than it would have been in the absence of this conflict. When surveyed 76% of Jordanians wanted the Syrians to go home.
Australia has agreed to take nearly 25,000 Syrian refugees by July this year. Only 26 have so far been registered.
630,000 have listed with the United Nations High Commission in Jordan alone. The numbers in Lebanon and Turkey are harder to determine given refugees are so scattered.
But one name on that list is Hind.
This is her last October with Patricia, our World Vision field worker in lebanon. You can see her pregnant belly.
Not long after we said our goodbyes, Hind was married to a cousin in Tripoli, in part for her own safety. Living as a refugee can be dangerous, particularly for young women. Hind and her husband then moved to West Lebanon and last month she gave birth to a baby boy.
When we met, she drew this picture in my notebook. Two roses – one dripping blood into a cup, the other in full bloom. She held my hand and told me she would one day be the flower on the right again.