By two months, a baby begins to smile at people. At six months, they learn to play with others. At the one-year mark, they have favorite things and people. At 3 years old, complex language develops and, at 5 years old, they speak clearly and have good control of their bodies. By 10, children are learning about chemistry in the sixth grade.
Children in Syria who were born in 2011 have passed through these developmental stages while living amid a brutal civil war. All of the important milestones of life have been surrounded by violence, death, poverty, and despair.
“Ten years — when you think about that in the life of a child — is astounding,” Jamie Weiss-Yagoda, the senior education policy advisor at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told Global Citizen. “It means that war has impacted children during their earliest years, which is when we know from neuroscience that the brain develops at its fastest rate.”
“By the time a child is 5 years old, the brain is 90% developed. When a young child grows up knowing nothing but adversity from displacement and fear, and violence and poverty, adversity that is prolonged — it disrupts healthy brain development,” she added. “The neurons that are forming literally don’t form the way they should to enable healthy development.”
A Decade of War
Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district in Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012.
In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the Syrian war, which was declared on March 15, 2011, the IRC released a report to give an overview of what Syrian children have gone through and explore what can be done to help them play, learn, grow, and thrive.
“Although this damage can be severe and permanent, it can also be mitigated if the right interventions are in place at the right time in their life,” Weiss-Yagoda said. “The situation is dire and it will continue to be dire without the right investments and commitments. But with the right policies, funding, and programs, we know that these children can recover and heal.”
The report emphasizes that children are remarkably resilient and recover from violence and trauma with the proper support. For this reason, Weiss-Yagoda said that she dislikes how the phrase “lost generation” is often applied to Syrian children.
“This is not a lost cause. They’re not lost yet,” she said. “But if we don’t invest now, the damage done to children will be irreversible. We still have an opportunity. We know that children’s brains are still developing. We know that children are resilient. And we know that if we don’t act, we will see long-term impacts on children’s ability to grow, develop, and learn, on their ability to work, build relationships, and build back societies.”
More than 600,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war. The conflict has displaced another 12.3 million people, including 5 million children. Despite staggered attempts at peace over the years, the war currently has no end in sight.
Growing Up Surrounded by Conflict
UNICEF reports that 90% of Syrian children need humanitarian aid, with more than 500,000 children under the age of 5 suffering from stunting, and 2.45 million children out of school.
In 2019, IRC conducted a survey of caregivers in Northwest Syria. The caregivers said that 62% of children cry all the time for no apparent reason, 46% show no interest in playing or having conversations, and 47% have trouble sleeping at night.
In 2016, UNICEF invited Syrian children to draw illustrations as part of a therapeutic initiative and many of them drew bombings, guns, destroyed homes, and tears.
Supporting these children means providing them with food, clean water, shelter, health care, and safety from violence. But it also has to go beyond baseline humanitarian aid, Weiss-Yagoda said, to encompass education and development.
“We need money,” she said. “We need funding for children’s services in crises like Syria. It’s unbelievable how little this is a humanitarian priority. We know that education consistently receives less than 3% of all aid and early childhood education is a sliver of that. Other children’s services in terms of learning and development for caregiver programs is a tiny fraction. It’s barely even measurable.”
At the end of March, the European Union is holding a pledging conference for the war in Syria and Weiss-Yagoda said that IRC wants to see a doubling or tripling of aid for education needs in the country.
Education in a Crisis
Educating children in a warzone or refugee camp involves considerations that go far beyond ordinary teaching.
Many children in these settings have missed years of schooling and need to be carefully brought back to an appropriate grade level. More urgently, years of trauma have to be addressed so that children can once again approach learning with an open mind, because trauma significantly impairs a student’s ability to learn.
“Many of these Syrian refugee children have witnessed or experienced violence directly,” Weiss-Yagoda said. “They’ve seen loved ones killed and have seen their villages destroyed. Their caregivers have experienced stress as well, and we know that affects a parent’s ability to provide stable and nourishing care, and that is fundamental for children to grow and thrive.”
“Our model is all about helping children first and foremost be in a safe, secure, and nourishing environment,” she said. “Learning can only happen when children are well and happy, and feel cared for and loved.”
IRC and its partners work with caregivers to help children regain a love of play and learning. With the Sesame Workshop, IRC has developed an early childhood development program called Ahlan Simsim, which provides children with a fun, caring, and exciting learning experience.
“We have refugee muppets that supplement educational resources,” she said. “They include lessons about being a refugee. We relate to children’s lived experiences, what it’s like to leave your home and lose your friends and lose your teachers, and be in a new home and country and a new environment, and not knowing when you’re going to be home again. Everything we’re doing is about supporting children’s learning, mental health, and psychosocial well-being and skills.”
More routinely, IRC and its partners regularly communicate with parents to instill the importance of playing and communicating with their children. Weiss-Yagoda said that they found that parents are most receptive to these lessons when they’re framed as cognitive development techniques.
“Fundamentally, what we saw is that parents are willing to do anything to ensure their children are still learning,” she said. “It gives them hope for the future.”
IRC also runs schools for children, but many of these have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pivoting in response to the pandemic has been difficult, but IRC has sent lesson plans via WhatsApp and coordinated with teachers for remote and distance learning.
No End in Sight
The Syrian civil war has been going on for a decade already, and many crises around the world have been going on for longer.
Weiss-Yagoda said that long-term humanitarian crises are the new norm. As a result, commitments by governments have to take a long-term approach.
The pledging conference at the end of the month can set a new precedent for funding that fully meets the scale of the crisis. But that can only happen if countries overcome the “donor fatigue” that has come to define humanitarian aid to the Syrian war.
“We don’t have a system set up for long-term humanitarian crises,” she said. “We have short-term funding, short-term actions for food, water, and shelter and then everyone goes home.”
“That's not how crises look anymore,” she said. “Syria’s just one of many wars that are lasting forever, displacement that’s lasting forever. We need funding over multiple years. We need coordination between humanitarian communities and we need investment in children.”