Syria's forgotten children
18 September 2013
“I don’t know why our town was bombed,” says 10-year-old Hussein in his quiet voice. “I don’t know what we did to deserve it.”
As Hussein speaks, his father Siraj smiles at his son and nods encouragingly, but there are tears rolling down his cheek.
Siraj, Hussein and their family are among more than one million refugees who have crossed into Lebanon to escape the war in Syria. It’s hard to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the family to abandon their home and their entire way of life – but, as Siraj explains, they had no choice.
“In Syria, we owned a farm, and we also had a gift shop,” he says. “But there were bombs everywhere in our village. And then a tank rolled into our shop and destroyed everything. We were very afraid, and we knew we had to leave at once.”
The family fled at five in the morning, shoving what few possessions they could into suitcases before setting off to neighbouring Lebanon. Today, they are living in a single room in a half-built block of flats in the city of Tripoli, just across the border.
“This place is the exact opposite to where we lived in Syria,” says Siraj. “You can see that seven of us sleep here in one room, on the floor. Life is very difficult for the children. They left their friends behind. They left everything behind.”
Siraj works hard to give his family a semblance of normality. He’s managed to find a job in a local petrol station, which means he can earn a little money. And because his children desperately miss the animals they used to play with on the farm, Siraj has used some of what he’s earned to buy a duck, a chicken and some fish.
“I try as hard as I can to make this place feel like home,” he says. “My children love animals so I’ve bought animals for them.
“But my oldest girl spends a lot of time alone, not speaking, just thinking a lot. And my oldest son, Hussein, always asks me why the war is happening.”
As Hussein and his younger brother take turns to feed the chicken, Siraj looks on thoughtfully.
“We thank God that we are still alive,” he says. “We are among the lucky ones. But I work day and night – and we still can’t afford to buy what we need.”
A crisis on a huge scale
If I could speak to a 10-year-old in England, I would tell them about life home and life here. I would tell them to end war. If there is a war in any country, don't carry on the war. Just make peace.
The scale of the crisis caused by the war in Syria is enormous: millions of ordinary families like Siraj’s have had their lives torn apart. Many of the refugees in Lebanon are living in desperate conditions – in makeshift camps, in derelict or half-built buildings, in cowsheds, even in the open air.
Your donations to our Syria Crisis appeal mean that Caritas Lebanon, a local Church organisation, can provide food, clothes, healthcare, mattresses, blankets and counselling to help people deal with the trauma of what they’ve been through.
“It’s not easy for someone like me to ask for help,” says Siraj. “In Syria I never had to ask anyone for assistance. But I learnt about the work Caritas do, and they have given us food, medicine, mattresses to sleep on, blankets and clothes.”
When asked what the best thing is that Caritas have given him, his response is surprising.
“Colouring pens and toys for the children,” he says.
“It’s very tough for the children,” explains Rania Bteich, who runs one of the Caritas centres. “Families try to protect their children from seeing things, but they hear about the war, they see it on TV, and many have seen their homes destroyed.
“We encourage children to express their feelings and emotions. We give them space to talk freely and with confidentiality – and to draw pictures or play with toys.”
For Siraj, family means everything, and he is extremely grateful to Caritas for understanding how important it is to him to keep life normal for his children. It is the solidarity of their staff and volunteers – and of the Catholics around the world who are supporting them – that gives him hope for the future.
“Receiving help from Caritas is better than getting one million Lebanese pounds,” he says. “I am so happy that they stand side-by-side with us. Every day that passes feels like a victory.”