The conflict we can't ignore

This opinion piece first appeared in the Herald Sun on  November 5, 2019.

By Vanessa Forrest 

IT was the shocking scene that jolted the world into caring once more about a forgotten war.

Two months ago, a Syrian news photographer captured harrowing footage of a five-year-old girl, Riham, trying to rescue her baby sister from their bombed home in Idlib.

Our hearts ached for the terrified father as he scrambled to his daughters’ aid, his face frozen in horror. We wept for little Riham as she reached for her sister dangling over the wreckage, her dress hooked on the debris.

And our hearts broke when we learned that Riham, her mother and another sister later died, further driving up the statistics of a bloody battle that has claimed more than 400,000 lives.

Much like the tragic images of the Syrian toddler whose  lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015, this story again made us pause.

But not for long enough - the true toll of this  8.5 year conflict cannot be told in a single frame.  

For every child who is killed, thousands more have been uprooted from their homes, families and friends, robbed of an education and left with deep physical and emotional scars.

More than half a million people have been displaced in the past five months alone after violence escalated in April.

And as the global “care factor” ebbs and flows, a lost generation of boys and girls now face the worst humanitarian crisis in Syria’s conflict.

For those trapped in Idlib, life is increasingly dangerous. Crucial infrastructure like schools, hospitals and water stations are being attacked and destroyed.

About 500 schools are reported to have been damaged, abandoned or used as shelters in northwest Syria this year. Simply going to school is a gamble in Idlib.

Ahmed, 11, is lucky to be alive after bombs descended during his maths class and he ran for his life. 

He’s now bunkered down with ten others in an abandoned shop as Government and opposition forces battle over the shattered city. His future is uncertain.

“The plane hit while we were at school,” he says plainly.

“We ran. My mother was killed by the bomb.”

Struggling with long division in class has been replaced with a struggle for survival. Not only is he now missing out on an education, but a routine that provides a sense of safety and stability, and emotional support from teachers and other students.

For the millions of families who have fled to displacement camps or across the border, resources for education are often tight. 

Many parents must make heart-breaking decisions about their children’s futures, such as sacrificing school to make ends meet.

The United Nations' Syrian Humanitarian Response Plan has only attracted 16 per cent of the funds it needs for education this year, as aid agencies like World Vision struggle to raise enough money for necessities such as food, water and shelter.

As a result, one in three school-aged Syrian children are out of school, and some have grown up never having set foot in a classroom.

This puts children’s lives in immediate danger.  Education is a crucial first-phase response to humanitarian crises, and children must be able to attend safely.

Research repeatedly shows that attending school is the start of generational change, dramatically improving a child’s future job prospects and income-earning potential to help lift their families out of poverty.

World Bank data shows that for every year a child stays in school, their potential earnings increase by about 10 per cent. 

And the benefits stretch well beyond money - girls who finish high school, for example, are less likely to die during childbirth or be forced into child marriage, will have fewer children, and are better equipped to help drive change in vulnerable communities.

Teenagers in school are less at risk of being drawn into dangerous work, recruited to fight, forced into child marriage or trafficked, and other abusive situations. 

Around the world, 58 million primary school aged children and 20 million secondary school aged children don’t go to school because of conflict, according to the UN Global Education Cluster.

Despite this, education in emergencies receives less than four per cent of available humanitarian funding globally.

Education is recognised as a fundamental human right, but our political leaders must remember this applies to every child, regardless of where they live – whether it’s in the suburbs of Melbourne or on the edge of a war zone.

Children in conflict zones tell World Vision aid workers like me their dreams of becoming doctors, pilots and teachers. 

But without our help, children like Ahmed can’t build strong foundations – for themselves or their communities.

The war in Syria has already stolen their childhoods, killed their loved ones and destroyed their homes. The least we can do is assure them of a future.

With 1.1 million  people now in need in northwest Syria alone, World Vision's ongoing response to the humanitarian crisis  is scaling up urgent assistance.  WV is appealing for $15 million through grants and private funding to reach 175,000 people with life-saving assistance over the next nine months.

Back to all Results