Tragedy by Numbers: The Lasting Impact of War on Syria’s Children

UNHCR paints a bleak picture for the 1.1 million youngest victims of the Syrian civil war

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Manu Brabo / AP

A Syrian girl stands near her family shelter at the Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border in Jordan, Oct. 23, 2013.

A new report issued by the U.N.’s refugee agency on Friday has detailed the impact of war on the more than 1 million Syrian children who have fled the bloodshed and the challenges they face trying to survive in foreign lands.

At the end of October, 52% of the 2.2 million Syrians who had registered with UNHCR as refugees were children. Since March 2011, more than 385,000 swept into Lebanon, a nation of 4 million, while 294,000 went north to Turkey and another 291,000 south to Jordan. Iraq took in about 77,000, more than 56,000 fled to Egypt and 7,600 fanned out across North Africa.

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The report, based on interviews with 106 children in Jordan and 176 in Lebanon conducted from July to October, illustrates the dire circumstances of life divorced from their homeland. In fact, some refugees opted to return to the more than two-year-old civil war rather than continue living in squalor, isolated and uneducated.

Here are four takeaways from the report:

Even if they escaped physical harm, it’s the images and sounds of war they can’t forget. Parents say children are suffering from flashbacks, sleeping troubles, bed-wetting and even speech problems; some have become aggressive or hyperactive, and others have grown more shy or unusually quiet. Between October 2012 and October 2013 in Jordan’s Za’atari camp, where more than 125,000 Syrian refugees are currently living, 304 children were treated for either posttraumatic stress disorder or other severe emotional disorders.

Often, they feel isolated and unsafe. Lebanon and Jordan have taken in more than 60% of Syria’s youngest refugees, but the newcomers have strained certain communities so much that tensions from even hospitable hosts have further compounded their immense stress and fear. The rapid influx of refugees, especially in border areas, has eaten away at infrastructure, destabilized local economies and pressured housing markets. The effects have resulted in a climate of violence and insecurity that has either forced children to become more isolated, frustrated and lonely, or open to committing theft, vandalism or even being trained to return to Syria to fight.

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Children are the breadwinners in many households. Since many parents either don’t have proper documents or can’t physically work because of age, disability or injury, children take up odd jobs in their place. Despite child-labor laws, UNICEF estimates 1 in every 10 Syrian refugee children in the region is working. Kilian Kleinschmidt, a top UNHCR official in Za’atari, says of the 680-odd shops in the camp, “All of them employ children.” Mostly boys, they earn little while toiling for long hours in often hazardous conditions in restaurants and barbershops, street stands and clothing stores, rock quarries and carpentry shops.

For most, school is a memory or a dream. The possibility of an entire generation of uneducated children is one of refugee officials’ most frightening prospects. In Lebanon alone, where 270,000 registered Syrian children were enrolled in the country’s public schools, UNHCR reports two-thirds of the 80 children interviewed about education acknowledged they weren’t in classes. In Jordan, 56% of the nearly 188,000 school-age refugees weren’t either. Why? Neither country can cover the costs, schools are overcrowded, they can’t physically (or safely) get to class every day or they’ve already fallen too far behind. And in Lebanon, where classes are also taught in English or French, the language barrier for Syrians exclusively taught in Arabic can be a major hurdle.

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