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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Universal Children’s Day: young people share stories of war, illness and lost innocence

Malnourished, a haunted look in the eyes, faces smeared with dust and blood — this is the all-too-common picture of a generation of Syrian children who have known little else in their lives but war.

Last year, more children were killed, injured and recruited into combat in the Mena region than in the previous year.

Extreme poverty still affects more than 29 million children, that is approximately one in four, and 5.7 million of primary school age are out of school.

For the hundreds of thousands of children caught up violence and conflict, their short lives are every day marked by pain and suffering.

This Universal Children’s Day, Unicef is giving them a chance to be heard.

Voices of Youth is an online blog platform with contributions from 10 countries, giving young people the chance to speak out, despite the obstacles they face.

We chose five pieces of writing from young people who as children suffered from war or illness or who are simply grateful to be allowed to invite the world to listen to their stories.

While many countries celebrate their own Children’s Day, the UN’s Universal Children’s Day hopes to promote international togetherness and awareness among children worldwide. Many of the young bloggers featured have limited internet connectivity or live in areas of conflict.

Others live in rural areas where many have no access to electricity for most of the day.

But young people are remarkably strong and determined. Through their willpower and persistence, they have overcome countless challenges, including unspeakable violence and being denied the opportunity to attend school.

A Syrian refugee child waits as refugees prepare to leave the Lebanese capital Beirut to return to their homes in Syria on September 9, 2018. - A group of Syrian refugees left the Lebanese capital for their homeland on September 9 as part of an organised operation coordinated between Lebanese and Syrian authorities. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
Children have been the worst affected by the Syrian conflict, with thousands losing out on an education. AFP

Rawd Dandashi, 19, from Syria

I had heard these terms in history class, like “war” and “torment”. They were abstract concepts I hadn’t paid much attention to. But seven years ago, when I was 11, they became my reality.

2011

I was in English class when the school’s supervisor interrupted the lesson to tell me that I would not be going home that day but to my uncle’s house, where it was “safer”. I didn’t quite understand why.

An hour later, a bomb exploded near my uncle’s house. I would be going home after all.

On the bus ride home the streets were empty. Scared faces peeked out of windows. You could hear gunshots and far-off shouting.

“Get ready, kid,” the bus driver shouted as we approached my house.

He accelerated, then suddenly hit the brakes and opened the door.

“Run, run, run,” my parents screamed, and I ran, rifle fire surrounding me.

At home, I was unable to grasp the gravity of the day’s events. It was only that evening when I was informed that schools were closed until further notice, that it hit me — we were at war.

What followed were long days with almost no electricity, food or phone reception. As soon as we could leave the city we headed to the countryside, hoping that it would be safer there.

2012

I attended a school in the countryside and for a whole semester my father had to drive me to school, passing army checkpoints and dodging gunfire. And towards the end of the semester the situation worsened. The violence meant we had to flee to Damascus, where we stayed with relatives.

I found a public school nearby. The books were different and it was challenging studying for the finals while living in a new environment. But I studied hard, day and night, and passed.

2013

The shelling in Damascus got worse every day. Eventually, we were forced to go back home. For the first time in a long time, the situation appeared more stable. We were still cautious but had got used to the bad situation. We tried to move on with our lives.

2014

Bombs would go off in our neighbourhood. Bodies and injured people were scattered around and the Red Crescent would come to pick them up. It almost became a routine.

After a bomb hit, people would hurry to the site to help the wounded and then a second bomb would follow. The death toll was rising by the day.

My sister decided to move to another city and my brother left the country, hoping to find a job and a better life. We lost people dear to us that year.

2015

My family was scattered across the world. Only a few people stayed in Syria. The ones who remained tried to stay sane. We were optimistic that an end was in sight, but then the kidnappings and rapes started — the offspring of the war.

On a sunny day in October at noon, my best friend was abducted from his neighbourhood. We knew that they did it for money.

His family paid a ransom and his mother pledged not to leave the house until her son returned home.

He never came back.

2016

We started to live each day as if it would be our last. It was the only way to move forward.

2017

Life became a bit more bearable. Before, we used to talk about which restaurant to go to or place to visit. Now we talked about relatives who drowned trying to find refuge.

Even when times were incredibly hard, every now and then we managed to laugh. Our wounded souls had stopped bleeding and massive scars had appeared instead.

2018

I am writing this to recap the past seven years of agony, torture, torment, discomfort, grief and misery. I haven’t seen my brother in four years, my sister in two. My best friend remains missing.

The seemingly endless war has made me fall behind in my education. I know I will have to go the extra mile to succeed. But even in the grimmest situations, I have found strength to move on. I can’t surrender to the circumstances around me.

Piles of scrap metal are a dangerous playground ofr Palestinian children in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza strip. Mahmud Hams / AFP
Piles of scrap metal are a dangerous playground for Palestinian children in Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza strip. Mahmud Hams / AFP

Aisha Karajah, 16, from Syria

My small hands are still trembling with fear. I look like a child who sees life behind the curtain of death.

But I keep pulling myself together so that everyone sees me smiling, full of the determination of a strong adult.

Who am I?

I’m the one longing to sleep, just like a hungry person longs to eat.

I’m the one who groans in secret so that only God hears.

I’m the one who is crushed and desperate, breathing out weakness and loss.

I’m the one whose innocence has been taken away. I forgot how to be a child.

How can I be a child, when I’m the one who brings joy to my siblings? After we lost our father, I am the breadwinner for my family. My mother’s illness has taken away all her energy, leaving her drained, just as autumn does to tree leaves.

I remember a moment when my book of Arabic language learning was lying next to my work equipment. I had to leave it. I walked away, sighing deeply with restlessness. I heard my master’s voice and sweat dripped down my forehead, my legs quivered with fear. He slapped me and tears dropped from my eyes like heavy rain.

On another miserable day, I picked up one of my books and just as I opened the first page, a human beast snatched it away from my hand and threw it into a flaming fire. I bit my lips, heart-broken.

My days were always monotonous in nature. I would come back to my house, which was about to collapse, with a lost look. I was tormented and deeply devastated, but I did not say a single word.

Children at Unicef's Holl-Holl refugee camp in Djibouti. Courtesy Unicef
Children at Unicef's Holl-Holl refugee camp in Djibouti. Courtesy Unicef

Hend Sebai, 21

“How long do I have left to live?”

“I have no answer,” the doctor said. “I can promise that your chance of survival will increase by 50 per cent if you consent to undergo a full mastectomy.”

Here I am standing in front of the mirror after a battle with cancer. I fought malignancy with toxicities and the result is a bald, scrawny woman without weight or breasts.

I am rueful about the times I cursed the fat accumulated in my buttocks and belly. In hindsight, I love it.

I remember the day I lost the last strand of my hair. It was far from easy. I blamed myself for every time I carped about my hair colour, split ends or that it was greasy.

I miss the feel of air going through its strands. I considered the removal of unwanted hair one of the greatest pains that afflicted women until the time came that I would search for a single hair to remind me of my natural routine.

My life reached a peak when I was informed about how the toxins my body cells had ingested to fight the disease ruined chances of motherhood.

God, how much a woman can love her imaginary child before she had them and before she even thought about having them. Cancer has taken away my womanliness and stripped off childhood.

But it can never dehumanise us.

I lost my womanly attributes but my human qualities have survived. I still can laugh and make someone laugh.

My doctor came to assess me and I have relapsed. In the period ahead, I will make sure cancer does not reach my soul and does not get my faith.

It should be wary of me and of every warrior, for we shall fight it to the death. Or to the life.

Syrian refugee children wait in a lorry ato leave the southern Lebanese village of Shebaa and return to Syria. Ali Dia / AFP 
Syrian refugee children wait in a lorry to leave the southern Lebanese village of Shebaa and return to Syria. Ali Dia / AFP

Marwan Al Rass, 16, from Syria

Throughout the past five years, a question kept coming into our minds and thoughts: how could we ever restore what has been lost?

We have always dreamt of our mother Syria as prosperous and safe. Some of us no longer dream of that image.

Am I writing this to state that there must be a way out after these hard times? Of course not. This guides you to one of the most important clues, the young.

The young are an element who are almost passed over socially and whose competences are not employed in the best way they should be here and in our society.

The youth are those at the height of their liveliness, their energy and their learning ability.

How could we use the abilities and liveliness of the youth? A beneficial education.

An education is not to be traditional or purposeless, no matter the curriculums. If we want education to be beneficial, we should guide the youth on how to use it and to open their horizons.

Interactive learning moves the mind more effectively than traditional learning. It is based on changing the traditional ways of thinking into logical or creative ones, and that is determined by the type of curriculum to be delivered.

It has many ways, such as teamwork and raising interactive questions, that engage the mind.

If you wonder why we bother ourselves and prepare interactive learning methods, then my answer would be that the human being is assigned to construct the Earth. Be it by Allah or stemming from a social responsibility, we must do it.

This education is primarily one of the ways of constructing the Earth. It leads to the birth of a generation that can build much more.

Although education, in my opinion, is the most important foundation, laying the basis for an exceptional generation, we should nevertheless focus on community leadership.

Just as community leadership brings a different kind of profit, which is the sense of social responsibility, another sort of leadership brings money as profit, namely entrepreneurship.

Let’s be sure that when we talk about the youth, it means we are talking about raw material that could turn into diamonds or into coal — and you decide which.

A displaced Yemeni child waits for her mother. Yahya Arhab / EPA
A displaced Yemeni child waits for her mother. Yahya Arhab / EPA

Salma Jendal Al-Rifaai, 23, from Syria

Like every other girl she aspires to get married, to wear the embroidered white dress and hold the bouquet of red roses.

Let her be a child. Her small body is not able to carry a baby.

Let her be comfortable in the company of her toys.

Let her be, before her dreams burn down in the first meal she cooks for you.

Let her dream like you do.

Let her count the stars at night, just as you do.

Leave her be for now.

She still studies hard and is still adamant to rank first in her class, like every year.

She still tells her teacher about her childhood dream to one day become a teacher like her.

She still wants to play on the swing, the see-saw and play hide and seek with the neighbours’ kids. Leave her be!

She still takes comfort from rushing to her father when she hears the sound of his keys in the door.

And she would ask him in the usual pampered tone, “What have you brought me today, daddy?”

She still pulls her sister’s hair whenever she snarfs a piece of her clothes, and then she would cry her heart out on her mother’s lap.

She still takes comfort in sleeping next to her toys and brushing her dolls’ hair. Leave her be!

She still uses her ten fingers to devour cotton candy, keeping the sugary flavour on their tips. Leave her be!

She has seen nothing of the world yet. Leave her be!

She doesn’t know yet about the renowned astronauts, the prominent writers and the greatest scholars. Maybe one day she will be one of them.

Don’t turn her into a statistic. Leave her be!