Syria's long-suffering children bear the brunt of war and despair

13.03.2017

Four years ago, a girl named Khawla fled war-torn Syria along with her family to neighbouring Lebanon in hopes for a better life. She was about nine years old then.

The hardships the family have since experienced has pushed Khawla to the brink of suicide, not once but twice in the past two years.

"I drank poison twice," says Khawla, now 13. "Yes I did, because I felt very desperate. We were starving. There was no food, no new clothes, no school," she tells journalists by phone from northern Lebanon, where she is living with her mother, five brothers and a sister.

"I knew that I was doing something wrong and that my family would grieve if I died. But I felt deep sadness and thought it would stop when I ended my life."  

A native of Idlib in north-western Syria, Khawla knows nothing of what became of her father, who went missing at the beginning of the Syrian conflict that erupted in March 2011.

"I feel I left a big part of me in Syria when I came to Lebanon four years ago."

Upon arriving in Lebanon, Khawla and her family lived for three years in miserable conditions in a tent.

Later, they were able to move into a humble one-room house in the north.

By leaving Syria, Sana – Khawla's mother – says she believed she was saving her seven children from an "imminent death sentence."

"I never imagined that our life here would be so difficult that it would lead my daughter to try to kill herself," adds Sana.

She asked not to publish the family's full name in order to protect her child.

"Although we were not rich in Syria, there we had a house with a roof, beds and most importantly, a school to go to," Khawla recalls. "I loved my school. I loved learning. I dreamed of becoming a doctor one day.

"I felt all my dreams had gone away when I left my country," Khawla adds in a trembling voice.

Save the Children, an aid group, last week warned that Syria's six-year-old conflict is damaging the mental health of the country's children.

"The prolonged exposure to war, stress and uncertainty, means that many children are in a state of 'toxic stress'," the group says.

Khawla has recently sought help from Beyond Association, a Lebanese non-governmental organisation in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, focussing on treating and assisting traumatised Syrian children.

"Khawla is like many Syrian refugees, who come to our centre with severe cases of trauma," the group's head, Maria Assi, says. "Some of them, like Khawla, have tried to commit suicide. Others have stopped talking or even eating as a result of the mental stress they are undergoing."

Assi adds that while Syrian refugee children are gripped by uncertainty about the future on the one hand, their present is unstable on the other.

"Their living conditions in tents are miserable. Sometimes their families ask them to work in order to help them financially. This adds to the stress felt by these children, who should be going to school and enjoying normal childhood at their young age," Assi says.

Lebanon is hosting more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees, including 550,000 children. Only 200,000 of these children go to school, according to Assi.

Khawla is now learning to read and write with help from Beyond Association and hopes to join other Syrian children who are attending UN-funded schools in Lebanon and dream of a stable future.

"I know that wars are ugly and full of miseries," Khawla says. "But six years of suffering are enough."    (dpa)

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Syria's civil war: The emotional scars of the refugee children

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