The white rose of Syria

“I will return to my home, love will return,” Ansam’s melodic voice reverberates around a packed Damascus opera house.

The audience is transfixed by the 10-year-old’s singing and the harmony of the forty-strong children’s choir who accompany her.

Born blind, Ansam lives in Syria’s capital after being displaced by fighting from her home just outside the city. Most of the children in the choir have also been displaced at least once.

The white rose I’m holding was given to me as the children entered the theatre. It matches the all white outfits worn by the young singers and embodies a sense of calm against the violence that pervades the country. It’s an elegant scene, far removed from the havoc that nearly six years of war continues to wreak on these children’s lives.

Outside the concert hall, the children’s drawings on display reflect the reality of fear, pain and a desperate search for a return to normality. Experiences of violence are juxtaposed with those of flowers, rivers and homes where children once happily lived. They were produced during UNICEF-supported psychosocial activities to help young people cope with the horrors they are living through.

On any day, at any hour, the nightmare of war can suddenly return. It continues unabated just a few kilometres away in besieged Damascus suburbs. The unpredictability of living through conflict for these children, for everyone, is unbearable.

The absurdity of war, a tragic performance in its own right, is that the children singing in front of the audience tonight are realising childhood dreams, while their peers elsewhere hide in basements just to stay alive. Sadly, so many children, including those on the stage, have shared this common experience at one point during Syria’s conflict.

Ansam and children across the country do what they can to continue their lives and manage their fear. Ultimately, they seek the same opportunities as any child. There is no prejudice and they don’t care whether they are from Damascus, Aleppo or Idlib.

I meet 12-year-old Mohammed and Mahmoud at a centre run by a UNICEF-supported NGO in a southern Damascus suburb. They’ve come with their mother to pick up the monthly cash allocation they are entitled to as displaced persons in the area. The 5,000 Syrian Pounds (US$10) for each child makes a big difference in meeting the family’s essental needs.

They used to live in the besieged town of Madaya, where the daily battle just to stay alive took its toll. It’s a 30-minute drive from Damascus, but only aid convoys can now sporadically reach the town and it takes hours to negotiate access through checkpoints.

A view of a children's choir, singing.
UNICEF/FrickerThe children’s musical concert in Damascus on UNICEF’s 70th anniversary.

During the last delivery of humanitarian aid to the town on 28 November 2016—including health, nutrition and education supplies—UNICEF staff saw firsthand how children struggle to survive. Children whose nutrition status worsens repeatedly, as regular deliveries of critical health supplies become harder and harder. Children who are sick or injured and can’t reach the necessary medical care just a few hundrend metres away.

Mohammed and Mahmoud are in some ways the lucky ones, at least they got out when they could. Now they proudly state they are going to school and despite everything there is a sense of hope. It’s a search for normality that children are refusing to release, even in besieged areas where they go underground for relative safety to continue learning and playing.

With their whole lives ahead of them, children in Syria can still see a future. One that can only be brighter. As Ansalm sings, “Everything that we went through will finish.”

 

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