Monday, December 21, 2015

The children of war need more help

Some still somehow dream of returning home to Syria, others are resigned to staying as safe as possible for good across the border, while a few do eye making it to Europe - for much-needed medical help at least.
But Syrian refugees continuing to flood into neighbouring Lebanon appear united on one thing: a desperation for the world not to look away, and instead continue putting pressure on both Bashar al-Assad and Daesh - and also keep providing aid.
Britain may have been convulsed lately in disputes over whether to extend military air-strikes against Daesh from Iraq into Syria as well.
But the UK is also among the most generous donors to the international aid effort, both in funding from the government and donations to charities such as Save The Children.
International development secretary Justine Greening told Metro that much more needs to be done better by others - with the plight of people in Syria and surrounding nations showing both the value and necessity of foreign aid.

Critics say Britain should be prioritising needs back here rather than committing to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP to international aid each year, having become the first G7 nation to meet the UN’s 45-year-old aid target.
But Ms Greening insisted UK generosity was not only saving and improving the lives of the world’s most desperate refugees, but also working towards greater stability further afield and closer to home.
Britain will be hosting a major summit on Syria’s refugees in London in February - taking over from the annual conference’s regular organisers, Kuwait.
Ms Greening and officials hope to use the event not only to urge other countries into increasing their aid contributions, but also drawing up longer-term plans to improve access to education and jobs.
Britain is second only to the US in terms of unilateral aid offered to refugees from Syria.
Britain’s promise of £1.12billion since 2012 - of which £653million has been spent - has seen results such as providing 20million food rations, 417,000 shelters and 4.6million relief packages.
Meanwhile, British aid has helped more than 250,000 Syrian children into education.
Ms Greening said: ‘This has been our biggest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.’
But she added: ‘Now we want to ensure we not only achieve the UN target of £8billion for 2016 as soon as possible, but also get commitments for beyond 2016 so those working on the ground can really plan ahead.’

The UN has appealed for £5.6billion this year, but has so far received only about 37 per cent of the target.
Only the US has spent more than Britain, allocating £2.8billion, while closest behind the UK come Kuwait (£764million), Germany (£634million) and Saudi Arabia (£387million).
Meanwhile, Russia has allocated a mere £24million and China £10million - both having also repeatedly blocking UN Security Council military strikes or tougher sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Since 2012 an estimated 6.5million Syrians still within the country have lost their homes, while another 4.18million have fled to surrounding countries - including 2.18million in Turkey and 1.08million in Lebanon.
David Cameron responded to the EU migrant crisis by promising Britain would accept 1,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas and 20,000 by 2020.
But his government has insisted their priority was to help those looking for shelter in Syria’s surrounding countries, rather than encouraging people to risk hazardous journeys further westwards.
Ms Greening said: ‘It’s not only the right thing to do to help people, but also is in Europe’s interests.
‘We’ve seen the consequences this year - after an international response that hasn’t been big enough - ending up on our doorstep.
‘At least now we’re starting to see a shift in other countries’ thinking.
‘Syrian refugees shouldn’t be in a position where they’re left thinking the only option available to them is to put their lives in the hands of people-smugglers.’
She dubs herself an ‘aid disciplinarian’, aware how many critics claim British donations overseas are either extortionate or else prone to be wasted within bureaucratic systems.
She insisted: ‘If we believe certain programmes aren’t delivering properly then we either change them or simply stop them.’
She says her epiphany about the need to get Syrian refugee children into schools came during a taxi ride with Save The Children UK’s chief executive Justin Forsyth - a former adviser to Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Some 250,000 youngsters are now thought to have been given some access to classes in the countries neighbouring Syria - many of them in afternoon shifts, put on host-nation teachers as a bonus.
‘On a visit to Jordan in 2013 it became clear to me that the UK needed to do more to galvanise the international community into getting more children into schools.’
Support efforts include paying teachers more to provide ‘double-shifts’ - often with refugee children taught in afternoons, with host-nation pupils attending classes in the mornings.

A UN Security Council resolution has made it a little easier to get into into Syria, from Turkey - giving UN agencies clearance to cross borders.
Now she and officials want to increase pressure on Jordan and Lebanon to lift restrictions on Syrian refugees officially working.
‘David Cameron has sat down with the king of Jordan to discuss this and we want to do the same with Lebanon and other neighbours,’ she said.
‘It’s a real challenge for bother countries, with all these people who have suddenly arrived - we want their economies not only to be able to cope, but also gain advantages.
‘When I first visited, Syrians were quite hopeful about going home at some point and trying to rebuild their country.
‘Now many have real doubts about whether they’ll ever be able to do so and we have to be thinking about what needs doing over the next five to ten years.
‘In time Syria will need to be reconstructed but it’s a race against time to make sure people have got jobs otherwise the country and the region will lose its best and brightest for good.’
The UN Security Council veto powers last week agreed a draft resolution endorsing a peace process for Syria including a ceasefire and talks between the Damascus government and the opposition.
Ms Greening said: ‘Although everyone welcomes the talks going on in the UN, the glimmers of hope for a path towards a little more stability in Syria, that’s not going to happen overnight.
‘This is a country facing many many challenges for a long time to come.
‘It’s vital the international community does everything it can to help people both inside and outside of Syria to cope with what’s happening in their country.
‘If not, we should expect to see people leaving the region and trying to build lives elsewhere - not only traumatic for them but taking us further away from rebuilding their country when peace does finally come.’

Mother-of-three Nermine learnt from a TV bulletin her husband had been executed after being caught trying to escape Syria. 
She spent three months being tortured in prison on trumped-up charges. 
And she trekked 30km across mountain ranges, along with her three young daughters, to finally escape into Lebanon.
But she says her more sorrowful suffering came when she emerged from the main prison in Syrian capital Damascus for an emotional reunion with her children - only to find they did not recognise her, before scrutinising how she could have 'abandoned' them.

The qualified IT worker was detained by president Bashar al-Assad’s regime, accused of harbouring and nursing rebel fighters.
At the time she was still sorely mourning the apparent killing of her husband, captured with two of her brothers while attempting to cross the border into neighbouring northern Lebanon.
She still clings to vague hopes he may be among those thought to be still alive, in detention, despite TV reports announcing his capture, displaying his photo and telling viewers he had been executed.
Nermine finally made a more successful journey into Lebanon five months ago, crossing the mountains leading from devastated Syrian city Homs into the northern Lebanese region of Akkar.
The arduous trek was especially difficult for her three daughters - Sendos, seven, six-year-old Nourlalhoda and Hibatailah, three - who now live with her an unfinished building in Kweshra.

But they managed to complete the trip. despite the authorities in Lebanon introducing an official ban on any new Syrian arrivals.
That means she and others like her are not only denied the ability to work officially - as is the case for all Syrian refugees in Lebanon - but also refused registration with and benefits from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
And yet these obstacles are not deterring some Syrian refugees left so desperate for relative safety from the persecution and shelling of pro-Assad forces and the Daesh’s ongoijng infilitration of new regions.
Arriving at her new home just days before meeting Metro were her parents-in-law: Mohamed, 65, and his wife Fatima, in her fifties.

They had stayed supportive when Nermine was taken into custody, even attempting to visit her in the Damascus jail but ultimately turned away.
They were ordered to walk away with heads down, snipers’ guns aimed at them ready to fire should they even dare to look up.

Nermine's husband and her two brothers had been caught in a pro-government ambush as they tried to flee Syria.
She said: ‘I assumed they had arrived safely in Lebanon.
‘It was only when people started calling me, saying that they’d seen their pictures on TV, that I learnt what had happened.
‘They were caught in an ambush and shot dead.’
Another two of her brothers have disappeared, presumed kidnapped.
As a former civil servant working for Assad’s government, Nermine had been allowed occasional freedom to travel beyond her Homs village of Zara - but such liberties were swiftly rescinded following her husband’s capture.
And worse was to follow when she was arrested, accused of nursing injured anti-government fighters, and tortured between prison transfers.
Techniques included suspending inmates upside-down from the ceiling, handcuffed or with hands bound behind their backs, and carrying out beatings for up to three days on end.
‘Bodies would turn blue,’ she said.
‘I was hurting all the time - but when I was seeing other people being tortured in other ways, I then thank god I wasn’t the one having that happen at the time.
‘The Damascus jail was the most horrible prison ever. Once entering there, I assumed I’d never be coming out alive.
She was only freed when a judge felt persuaded of her innocence, though did warn she faced rearrest and likely death if ever suspected again.

But while she was in tears when reunited with her children nine months ago, she was distraught by their lack of recognition - and then their pleas to know why she had apparently ‘abandoned’ them for so long.
‘When I got home for the first time, I ran to my children but they didn’t really recognise who I was - that was so difficult for me as their mother.
‘It was more difficult than even being in prison. They didn’t come near, and one asked: Why did you leave us?
‘I couldn’t tell them I was in prison, I claimed I was off looking for our family members who had gone missing.’

She spent another three months in Homs, before deciding to dare an escape across the border - carrying her children as they wandered towards Lebanon for eight hours during daylight, five by night.
‘We were fortunate to get through - but if we were going to die in Syria, we might as well die in Lebanon. We had to take the chance - why not?
‘Zara is a haunted village  now - there’s nothing left in it.
‘Even the buildings that aren’t demolished have been taken over by the regime. I’m a refugee here but I’d be a refugee there too. I prefer not to go back - there’s nothing for us to go back to. We could never feel safe.’

She must pay $225 in monthly rent at the sparse flat they found, although charities such as Save The Children have donated blankets, mattresses and wooden timbers. 
The agency also does deals with landlords, offering to renovate properties in exchange for refugees having their rental charges waived.
She sold two gold bracelets for $600 but those proceeds are likely to run out soon - restricting her ability to vital supplies such as oil for heating, nappies for her youngest and food and milk.
‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m looking for a job. I have a diploma but I don’t have any of my documents. We need more help from the world.
‘There are so many widows with children who can’t generate an income, can’t survive on their own, they have no proper homes. 
‘My kids are traumatised like you wouldn’t believe. They’re frightened all the time. Whenever a helicopter passes by, they get scared - if someone’s out shooting birds, they’re terrified.’

The dramatic dent sheared into ex-soldier Khaled's forehead will likely be a permanent reminder of the rocket attack on his Homs home that left him in a coma for a month.
So are the three shards of shrapnel left lodged in his body, as well as the screaming fits that still afflict him even as he has taken refuge in neighbouring Lebanon.
The 24-year-old made it across the border being carried over their heads by friends wading through the chest-height waters of the connecting Nahr al-Kebir river.
He has since been joined, crammed into a basic shack, by his sister Amneh, 22, and her five children - Mohomad, eight, seven-year-old Ahmad, Yamama, four, two-year-old Soud and Abdelhodi, three months.
Khaled’s injuries came when his Homs home was shelled by the Syrian regime, leaving him unconscious and then in a coma for the following month.

I can’t remember much of what happened,’ he said.
‘There were massacres all over the place and finally our village got hit too - it was laid to waste.’

That attack happened three years ago but he still bears the scars both physically and mentally.
‘I spent 18 days in hospital but then for five months I couldn’t even walk. It was a struggle to talk too,’ he said.
‘I still have panic attacks and fits. I feel disturbed, frustrated, so much of the time.
‘I can’t bend down without being in pain. I can’t work. I used to paint and decorate - windows, doors, furniture - but that’s not possible anymore. I just don’t know how to cope.
‘Doctors say still have at least three bits of shrapnel, or broken bones, inside my head. 
‘Sometimes when there’s so much noise I begin foaming from my nose and finding myself screaming. Then afterwards it’s like I can’t remember any of it.’

Such experiences are equally traumatic for his sister, still haunted by finding him appearing to be dead and resistant to her anxious attempts to wake him.
Amneh said: ‘He’d passed out while sleeping but I thought he’d died. We’re worried for him all the time, every time he goes to sleep - and doctors say we have to pay special attention in case he swallows his tongue.
‘My eldest is scared all the time too. He won’t even go to the bathroom on his own, while all my children barely have any appetite even though there’s so little to eat anyway.
‘They’ve stopped playing. They’re physically tired all the time.’

Khaled is resigned to remaining in Lebanon, rather than even harbouring any hopes of returning to Syria - even if Assad’s regime is toppled and a peace plan is implemented.
‘I will never go back. I saw all my friends killed in front of my eyes.
‘I saw my neighbours, women and children crying. I couldn’t cope with going back there.
‘If anyone could tell me I could simply have the operation I need, and it would be a success, I’d love to go to  foreign country just for that.
‘I wouldn’t stay - after all, I wouldn’t know anyone there and I don’t want to be far away from my family. But I can’t even see that happening just now.
‘We don’t want Assad and we don’t want Daesh. We just want someone to intervene and make peace, not war.’

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