This holiday season, as I watch the continued tragic news updates on Aleppo, my thoughts are with the children and teens affected by the conflict. Often when we think of Generation Z and the trends taking place in the United States and developed countries among today’s youth, it’s easy to overlook the experiences of those growing up amidst terrifying conflict. And yet, the children of Syria are also, based on age, part of Gen Z. As we gather together with our families and friends to celebrate the holidays and toast the coming year, let’s pause to remember these children. Perhaps our collective caring can help make a difference in their lives and ease some of the suffering.
The consequences of a childhood stolen by war are vast and far-reaching. UNICEFestimates that there are 8.4 million Syrian children in need of humanitarian aid both inside and outside the country. There are immediate physical threats and the lack of healthcare infrastructure to treat injury or illness. Last year, Mercy Corp reported that among a survey of teens in Syria, 41% had needed to go to the hospital last year but 81% did not have access to a nearby hospital. Additionally, there is malnourishment and psychological trauma from losing loved ones or bearing witness to unimaginable violence. A 2015 survey conducted in Turkey found that over half of Syrian child refugees had seen someone attacked or shot at and an even higher percentage had experienced a death in the family. Additionally, there are atrocities such as children being forced to serve as fighters or used as human shields. There is the loss of innocence and childhood from circumstances such as being required to work and labor under extreme conditions in an attempt to help support the family. NPR shared the story of Fatemah, a young teen refugee now forced to work in the fields and hit with a plastic pipe if her pace isn’t meeting the foreman’s expectations. Moreover, there are the missed educational opportunities and basic schooling that result from being a child of war.
The Gen Z children and teens of Syria face daunting challenges. Yet, if you pause to look into the hearts and minds of the youth growing up in the middle of what has been called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, the spirit of Gen Z is clearly present.
There is Bana Alabed (@AlabedBana), the seven year-old Syrian girl from Aleppo who, in true Digital Native form, took to Twitter during the siege with her mother’s help to share her story and perspective with the world. While news stories earlier this month questioned her legitimacy—her story was so compelling and heart tugging that the source and motives were understandably scrutinized in our world of fake news—she subsequently resurfaced, having escaped from Aleppo, to meet with President Ergodan of Turkey. Bana is not alone in her desire for digital connectedness. Fatema, the teenage Syrian refugee mentioned previously, said in an interview last year that her cellphone is her one link to the outside world and she uses it to keep up with news about Syria.
A recent study by Mercy Corp among Syrian teens found that school is regarded by all as an absolute priority, ranked even above health for many. However, as the fighting has continued within Syria schooling has been precarious at best. The BBC reported earlier this year that over a quarter of Syrian schools have been damaged, destroyed, used as shelter or converted into a military building. The pursuit of education is not only difficult inside Syria, but also for those who have escaped. Many countries do not permit young refugees to attend school. Many refugee camps set up schooling for children living there, but in addition to the psychological and physical trauma already incurred by the students, there are still practical and logistical challenges including securing adequate facilities and materials and access to consistent teachers, among others as outlined by the Brookings institute in a multi-part blog series.
Despite these hardships, this is a generation that doesn’t give up, and there are glimmers of optimism, hopes and dreams present and for the world to see. Mercy Corp reports on Syrian youth that still dream of being doctors, are trying to learn computer skills, or are independently studying foreign languages after having completed high school and thus not being able to go further with formal education in their host country. Save The Children started an initiative whereby Gen Z youth in Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan, were given cameras and taught photography in an attempt to encourage them to share their experience with the world as they see day to day life. Their images reveal snippets of joy found amidst the chaos—a boy on a bicycle, children playing in a puddle after the rain, a young tween looking at images on a cellphone. You can follow them on Instagram. Change the backdrop and you could easily forget that these children are innocent victims of a war they had no part in creating.
But we cannot forget. We must not forget. The watching world needs to be the lifeline of hope and help for these children. I believe there are two things that all of us can do to make a difference. The first is to stay abreast of the news and speak up. By letting friends, family and the world know that we care and that we are outraged at the inhumanity of the situation, we can raise collective awareness of this horrible crisis and increase the odds that more assistance—whether through intervention, policy changes, aid or otherwise—will be devoted towards solving it. The second is to support organizations that are working to help those still inside Syria and those who have fled. This holiday season, consider making a gift to an organization that is working to better the lives of the generation of young people affected by the conflict in Syria. Consider making a pledge for 2017 to provide ongoing support. There are many organizations striving to do great work. Consider giving to organizations such as those mentioned in this post: UNICEF, Mercy Corp, or Save The Children. Those are by no means the only ones though as many nonprofits are doing important work with those impacted by the Syrian conflict. Charity Navigator, which evaluates the financial health and transparency of the nonprofits they review, is one way to select an organization working with Syria and Syrian refugees that speaks to you.