A bestselling Afghan-American author and UN Goodwill Ambassador shares his experience in Iran of meeting ‘so many children older than their years, refugees deprived of a future’.
SOMETHING about the boy was not right. He seemed disoriented, detached from his surroundings. He barely spoke, and when he did, it was in flat monosyllables, his eyes unfocused and downcast, as if too heavy to roll up from the weight of all they had seen. He was the picture of quiet devastation, of a childhood forever splintered.
He was 14 years old, a Syrian refugee, sitting with his family in a small room in the registration building of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Erbil, northern Iraq.
In the crowded, noisy offices downstairs, scores of newly-arrived refugees queued to register, including an exhausted-looking, dust-sheathed family of Dom Gypsies and a Syrian woman with a club foot, who limped about the hallways and pleaded with every passer-by to give her asylum in Germany.
In the upstairs office, the boy’s father sat across a table from me. A supple, boyish-looking 36-year-old, he recounted, with admirable calm, the story of his family’s harrowing escape, two weeks earlier, from their hometown, Aleppo, and their subsequent trip across the Turkish border and into the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
Before the war, he said, he worked at a shoe store, and his three children excelled at school. It was a modest but happy middle-class life.
But then came war, and suddenly rocket-propelled grenades were whooshing in all day and Aleppo was honeycombed by falling bombs. He lost his job and his children’s school closed; they would lose two full years of schooling before the family’s eventual escape.
Soon, there was no electricity, no telephone service, no food. The father sold the family’s belongings, down to the last piece of furniture. When the money ran out, he borrowed flour from neighbours for his wife to make bread.
“Sometimes, we weren’t eating for two or three days, but just giving the bread and water to the children to eat to survive,” he said.
Still, he felt comparatively lucky, as blasts had somehow missed the building where they lived. But the family’s luck ran out when a bomb struck their five-storey building. The top floor was demolished.
He described a scene of carnage. Four people died: one old man and three children; many more were wounded.
That was when the family decided to flee and come to Erbil to stay with his brother, who worked at a hotel.
I found myself hoping he would not tell me this, but he did: “Our kids have seen everything. People torn into 100 pieces. The meat of humans torn apart in front of us – flesh and blood.”
I stole a look at his boy, and caught a darkness flitting across his face.
I am a father of two children. I cannot imagine what it would do to them, to see such grisly things.
Yet, that is happening every day in Syria. A whole generation of children is unable to attend school, their lives shaped by violence, grief and displacement.
At some point this year, Syria will overtake my native country, Afghanistan, as the world’s largest refugee-producing state. There are now 2.5 million refugees from Syria, 1.2 million of them children.
Two-thirds of Syrian refugee children, and nearly three million children inside the country, are out of school. They face a broken future. Syria is on the verge of losing a generation. This is perhaps the most dooming consequence of this terrible war.
I was told as much by Payman, a 16-year-old girl living with her parents and three younger siblings in the Kawergosk camp, near Erbil.
Kawergosk was built almost literally overnight last August, when a sudden influx of tens of thousands of Syrians entered northern Iraq.
Today, it is home to 12,000 people, a city of white tents sprawled at the base of a green hill, carved by zigzags of muddy lanes along which men smoke and talk war, boys kick footballs and women stoop over spiralling ropes of smoke from cooking fires.
Payman wore a striped blue T-shirt with a cartoon butterfly on the front, but like many Syrian children I have met, her demeanour had a maturity exceeding her years.
In the family tent, Payman showed me old photographs and played for me home videos of a long-ago birthday party. They had watched those videos countless times, she said, and still, every night, they gathered to watch them again, transfixed by those grainy images of freer, happier incarnations of themselves.
Payman remained composed until I uttered the word “education”. Tears came to her eyes as she told me that her hopes of finishing school and becoming a writer seemed like a threadbare dream now. “Without school there is no future,” she said. “There is no happiness.”
In Syria, the war shows no sign of ending. Many more families like Payman’s will be forced to abandon their homes and flee across borders. The neighbouring countries – Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey – are generously doing what they can, at great cost to their own economies, social services and infrastructure. In Lebanon, for instance, Syrian refugees make up nearly a quarter of the population.
T.S. Eliot once wrote that humankind could not bear very much reality. But this is one reality that we must all bear, one we cannot let vanish in a fog of apathy. Syria’s neighbouring countries cannot and should not carry the cost of caring for refugees on their own.
The international community must share the burden with them by providing economic aid, investing in development in those countries, and opening their own borders to desperate Syrian families looking for protection. And ordinary citizens can help fund the education of millions of Syrian children like Payman, to ensure that their future is not wrecked.
When we left the registration building, I spotted the father I had met earlier, and his family, waiting in a crowded office to be registered. His son sat on a wooden chair, unmoving, his arms crossed, unseeing eyes staring ahead.
For a moment, he looked in my direction. I glimpsed the plight of an entire generation of Syrian children, caught between the pain of what has happened and the uncertainty of what is yet to arrive. The boy blinked and looked away. I saw no recognition in his eyes. – International New York Times