Mahamed and Ahmad show me their toy tank in the makeshift shelter where they live with their family.
The Syrian conflict has been popping up in my newsfeeds on and off for the last two years. Most of the news is about the fighting between the government and the rebels, the Free Syrian Army. Who has taken which area? Which area has been destroyed by which force?
Even if I had any influence, it’s hard to know what should or could be done in this situation. Everyone I speak to seems to have a different view.
What I haven’t heard much about in the news is the refugee crisis – the 1.6 million Syrians who’ve fled their country. Now that I’m in Lebanon, helping with communications around the response, I’m meeting many of these families.
My time here has confirmed that the Syrian conflict is complex. It’s been difficult to get my head around, but here’s what I do know:
1. Over 6.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes
That’s like if everyone in the country of Laos, or the populations of Victoria and Tasmania combined, had to leave. The Syrians I’ve met had little choice – the war literally came into their suburbs, their streets, their apartments.
Forza, a mother of five boys, told me about her life in Syria before they fled. Her husband worked in a supermarket and they lived in a three-bedroom apartment near a university in Homs. When Homs became a hotspot for violence, they moved to live with distant relatives – but soon this area was caught up in the fighting as well.
Finally, Forza and her boys fled. She has since heard that their apartment block was destroyed in a missile attack. There is no home for them to return to. Forza didn’t want to talk about the fate of her husband who had not come with them to Lebanon.
This family’s story is not unique. The refugees I’ve met have all been directly affected by violence – some have escaped their homes as they were hit by missiles, others have scars from shrapnel, bullets, and burns.
While 1.6 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, this still represents a small number of those affected. In Syria, there are 4.25 million people who have been forced to leave their homes. Forza is not hopeful about their prospects of returning, or seeing an end to the crisis soon. “They’ve been fighting for almost two years already,” Forza said, “I don’t think the system will fall.”
2. At least half of those affected are children
The situation faced by Syrian children I’ve met in Lebanon breaks my heart. Their present circumstances are tough; the stories of their past are harrowing; their futures are uncertain.
Forza’s eldest sons, teenagers Ahmad and Mahamed, caught my attention. They sat still and somber, while their younger brothers reached for my camera and played loudly in the tent. I asked about a toy tank that sat on the ground in the tent. Mahamed showed me how he had seen tanks driving up and down roads, firing sideways, using his toy to recreate what he had witnessed. He told me how he worries about his friends because he doesn’t know where they are or if they are safe or not. He misses school and his teacher.
Like many other children in the settlements, Forza’s sons have little to do during the day. They help their mother when they can, or play outside in the dirt with anything they can find.
World Vision is working to provide safe places for children to play, and programs to make up for lost schooling to help them prepare to enrol in a Lebanese public school. These activities are so crucial to give the children I’ve met some hope for the future.
3. Neighbouring countries are facing tremendous pressures
A friend of mine has been living in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital city, for just under a year. In that time she’s seen the city transformed. Today, Syrian refugees are visible everywhere – begging on footpaths and sleeping under bridges and shopfronts.
In other parts of the country, tent settlements have sprung up in empty paddocks and next to farms.
Lebanese people who initially welcomed the Syrian refugees two years ago are now concerned about the ongoing and increasing strain on resources – like electricity, schools, and housing – many of which are stretched well beyond capacity and are reaching their breaking point. Syrian refugees now make up 10 per cent of the total population.
Looking at a map of Syria you can see how geographically big it is compared with some of its border countries, including Lebanon. Most face significant challenges of their own.
All of Syria’s neighbours are feeling the impact of the war, not to mention the cost of hosting the 1.6 million Syrian refugees.
That’s what I know – millions of Syrians, over half of them children, have been forced to flee their homes. Those who have crossed into neighbouring countries are relying on support from stretched governments and organisations, like World Vision. I really hope that through their own strength and determination and the generosity of others, the children I’ve met will be able to grow up healthy, educated, and in peace.
Joy Toose is in Lebanon providing communications support for the Syrian Refugee Crisis response. You can also check out her first blog, Syria – the country that’s disappearing before our eyes.