I recently traveled to Gaziantep in southern Turkey, close to the Syrian border, because I wanted to see the situation for refugee children first-hand. Turkey is carrying a huge burden, helping with what is now the biggest refugee population in the world: nearly 2.8 million Syrian refugees, of which 1.2 million are child refugees.
Turkey, with the support of donors, has made important progress in the last year to get over half of these Syrian children into school, but, tragically, over 40 per cent are still missing out on an education. Sadly, across the region 2.7 million children are out of school. This risks not just their futures, but all our futures – as extremists fill the vacuum, to brainwash a lost generation of children. Listen to this BBC report from Gaziantep by Matthew Price (beginning at 2:10:16) and his short video clip on the Today website.
I heard first-hand how children and their families suffer. Two boys told me how they worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week in a textile factory. On their one free day, they come to an UNICEF-supported children’s centre. They want to go to school, but they said they had to work to pay the rent. Many families, after five years, have used all their savings and are deep in debt and struggling. An EU-supported cash programme aims to help children like these get back into school.
I also met a family who had fled an area controlled by ISIS recently, and they described the fear and suffering they experienced. In the end, they fled to get treatment for their young son, who has eye cancer. The daughter told us how they walked through a minefield strewn with body parts. How she walked first so her father would not be blown up – because the family needed him. Another family told us how they lived in a cow barn when they arrived in Turkey, working on a farm.
But despite these hardships, there was much to be inspired by. In Nizip refugee camp, I met Kenana, a 17-year-old whose family was among the first to arrive to the camp five years ago. Kenana told me that she used to go to the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in the camp to play and make friends. She now volunteers at the same centre to help children deal with the stress of conflict and displacement, an experience that she is only too familiar with. Kenana also goes to the camp’s school and wants to study psychology when she graduates from high school.
Another inspirational young person is 7-year-old Bana, who became famous reporting on Aleppo during the siege. It was a privilege to meet her and her mother Fatemah. They told me their story, and about their escape from Aleppo. They described being on a bus held in no-man’s-land for 18 hours. 80 people per bus. In their bus, a mother gave birth.
Some of the bravest acts in recent history have been by doctors and nurses in Aleppo, who despite being bombed and besieged, saved so many lives. I met two doctors, both injured themselves. They described how their hospital was hit four times, including one chlorine attack – and how they had to cut the clothing off the children on the floor, wash them with water and use steroids to save them. They described how they ran out of medical materials and were forced to amputate hands and legs because they couldn’t treat the injuries. They also had a harrowing escape. They packed 24 people into one car; the badly injured doctor (with severe burns) had three children on his lap. Real heroes. UNICEF is supporting many health clinics across Syria, including the work of these doctors, as well as schools and child protection programmes.
Justin Forsyth is Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF.