Syria: A perspective from the Middle East

In conflict, children are undoubtedly the priority. The welfare of children affected by the Syrian conflict has been the focus of much international attention. Losing a whole generation to poverty and dislocation would be a humanitarian tragedy. Despite the UK’s recent decision to grant asylum to 1,000 Syrian refugees and the considerable work of charities and UN organisations, the facts speak for themselves. In November, the Oxford Research Group published figures revealing that 764 children had been summarily executed and that 389 had been killed by sniper fire. There had been 112 reported cases of child torture, with some victims under the age of five. 11,400 children had been killed since the conflict began.

All we can do is provide aid and hope that diplomacy and dialogue will yield a positive outcome. Given the recent events in Geneva, it would appear that any peaceful transition of power or conclusion to this dreadful conflict is unlikely.  Even if a deal is negotiated, the future remains bleak. If Assad remains in power, the chaos and destruction will continue. If he is finally deposed, the Syrian National Council will take control of a divided country, ravaged by poverty, famine and disease. None of this is to say that a potential successor would have the answers to Syria’s problems, as has been witnessed in other North African and Middle Eastern countries following a revolution.

To take Libya and Egypt as examples, the situation inherited from a tyrannical reign is far from simple. Egypt finds itself in the midst of its own labyrinth, desperately seeking a way out of the chaos that followed Morsi’s removal from power. The country is undermining itself, shifting from tyranny to failure to General Sisi, whose army continues to wield its authority amid chaos over constitutional reform. Libya has hardly been mentioned in the British Press since Gaddafi was killed, as if the country made the miraculous and seamless transition to a functioning democracy overnight. The reality is somewhat different; lawlessness rules the state as militia groups, many of which did not exist before Gaddafi’s capture and death, force their agenda on the government. A new saying has emerged among the Libyan people: “Before we only had one Gaddafi, but now we have hundreds.”

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While outsiders incessantly analyse and discuss the geopolitical implications of a civil war that threatens to spill over into neighbouring Lebanon, the perspective on the ground provides a closer insight into how people have been affected, in particular the seemingly overlooked older generation who are disproportionately at risk. Data obtained from the Za’atari refugee camp illustrates that only 2% of the refugees are aged 60 or over but they account for 7% of the Syrian population. This suggests that many have been internally displaced or have decided to remain in their own homes. These people are particularly vulnerable during the winter, when heavy rains and sub-zero temperatures aggravate their daily struggle. Life for a refugee in Jordan is unquestionably safer. However, a Syrian farmer in his sixties, one of my English students at the Jesuit Refugee School on the outskirts of Amman, told me that there are psychological consequences to relocation, if not physical ones.

Faiz Ahmed Abdul Rahim could hardly string together a group of words let alone form an entire sentence in his first class. Despite his linguistic inexperience, he had, nonetheless, prepared a paragraph of immaculate English about his hopes and aspirations back in his hometown of Mahaja, a small town in the Daraa region. He spoke with distinguished pride about his farm, the various trees growing on it, and his dream that one day, his two sons will take the reins from their father. His eyes lit up as he mentioned the olive groves and lemon trees he has seen flourish in years gone by. He hasn’t returned for more than a year, but has already requested that I visit him in two months’ time, when he believes the conflict will be over. I read a tweet posted three weeks ago that stated: “Daraa: Mahaja: Fierce tanks shelling the northern area of the town from Majbal checkpoint”. Perhaps my visit will have to wait.

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Faiz’s farm is his anchor, his compass and his home. Without it, one feels that he has been robbed of what is most precious to him. The refugee school is another farm, albeit a temporary one, in which he can cultivate his ability to learn new English words and phrases. While it gives him purpose and something to be a part of, it is clear that this is only a temporary solution. He needs to return to Mahaja to have some chance of leading a fulfilling life in his senior years. While children shouldn’t be robbed of a childhood, the older generation should be able to live out their years at home and in peace.