Report: Syria's Civil War Is Brutal On Children

UNICEF says more than 10,000 children have been killed in the ongoing conflict, and 2.8 million are not in school. David Greene talks to UNICEF's Juliette Touma, who's based in Amman, Jordan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a child. That's one of the conclusions in a new report from UNICEF. They focused on the state of Syria's children after three years of civil war, and the findings are grim. It's estimated more than 10,000 children have died in the conflict, and nearly half of the country's school-age children are not in school.

Juliette Touma is the Syria Crisis spokesperson for UNICEF, based in Amman, Jordan, and she's on the phone with us. Juliette, good morning.

JULIETTE TOUMA: Good morning.

GREENE: So, I just wonder, I mean, the list of horrific challenges that children face: malnutrition, the fighting in that country, I mean, children spending time in refugee camps. Is there any way to identify maybe the most pressing or immediate need?

TOUMA: The challenges are, indeed, huge, David. They go from the fact that children are going through one of the horrific civil wars that the world has witnessed. They have become refugees. They've become internally displaced. (unintelligible). They lost their schools. They paid with their health. I mean, it is a grim situation, and children are at the very center of this conflict. That's why we put out this report, to shed light on the needs of these children.

GREENE: You told some very personal stories in this report, and one of the realities here is that millions of children are out of school in Syria. Can you explain some of the reasons for this?

TOUMA: It's because of the violence and because of the war, and it's because of the displacement. I mean, I met a child, he was a boy of 12 years old, and we were having a chat, and he told me that he had to leave his house about six months ago, moving to another place inside Syria, and another place, eventually crossing the border to Jordan. And that was not the end. He was going to join his father in a country, in the (unintelligible). So, a dozen times to be displaced before that child settles and down and goes back to school. And so he lost at least six months of schooling. And that's one story out of three million stories that we have.

GREENE: You were in the besieged city of Homs last summer, and I know you've been visiting Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. Can you just give me a window into the kinds of conditions that children are living in?

TOUMA: That's right. Last year, I visited one neighborhood in Homs. It's called al-Wahid(ph). I remember going into an unfinished building where families took refuge. I think it's a surprise factor that really hit these families. I mean, they were living a normal life. And then, suddenly, sometimes overnight, they had to pack everything and sometimes just leave and go and find refuge in another place, in unfinished buildings where there's no services, where there are no toilets. I remember actually going into that building, to the basement, where the garage of the cars was supposed to be, and me seeing children who were in an intermediate class, and they were doing a catchup class, and there were learning.

And it's amazing how, amidst the war, amidst the violence, amidst the shelling, there were children and there were teachers who were standing there and insisting on teaching the future generation of Syria.

GREENE: As you speak to these children, what kind of emotional trauma are you seeing in them?

TOUMA: Personally, when I speak to children, they talk a lot about death, about their bad experiences and about fear. Parents also tell us that their children stopping to eat normally, of some very extreme cases, children stop being able to speak. But you know what, David? I mean, the most amazing things in these children and also in these families that we speak to is their resilience. And it's their persistence to continue, to continue surviving, and lastly to continue their education. And we have a number of families pleading to UNICEF, please, help us get our children back to school. And I think that as long as these families and these children are still asking to go back to school, there is a lot of hope. And that's why it's even a bigger reason for the global community to do everything we can to stop this violence, for the sake of the future of the children of Syria.

GREENE: Juliette Touma is the Syria Crisis spokesperson for UNICEF, and she was speaking to us from Amman, Jordan.

Juliette, thank you very much for your time.

TOUMA: Thank you, David. Thanks so much.

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