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Syrian children growing up with the sounds of war

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With dirt on her face, the small girl shyly approached the crowd holding a pack of lighters for sale. Barely reaching the height of an adult’s waist, she glanced upward at passersby asking in Arabic if they would purchase one of her multicolored lighters. When asked how old she was, she responded shyly that she was 4.

Walking the streets of Beirut, Lebanon, it is impossible to miss the children weaving through the cars and crowds. They walk up to strangers holding items to sell, such as lighters, roses, gum packets and a variety of non-essential items.

As each day passes of the Syrian conflict that began in March of 2011, the childhood and futures of many Syrian children are threatened.

The conflict erupted into a full-scale war that has destroyed homes, schools and historical artifacts and left behind the children’s innocence in the rubble. In the eyes of babes glimmer images of some of the most horrific displays of the war. Children have watched as they lost family members and as explosions destroyed their schools, and some have experienced physical wounds themselves.

More than 5 million Syrian children are affected by the ongoing conflict, and it is estimated that more than half of the 2.2 million Syrian refugees are children, the UN says.

Schools in Syria have turned into fighting grounds or homes for internally displaced people, as the conflict rages on in many communities and cities. UNICEF reported that one in every five schools in Syria has been destroyed. UNICEF, Save the Children, UNHCR and other NGOs are fighting to provide aid and educational assistance to the growing number of children who are displaced and refugees.

 “Millions of children inside Syria and across the region are witnessing their past and their futures disappear amidst the rubble and destruction of this prolonged conflict,” said Anthony Lack, UNICEF’s executive director. “We must rescue them from the brink, for their sake and for the sake of Syria in future generations.”

As many families have been internally displaced, children are forced to begin to work to help provide for their families, are recruited for the militia or are advised to stay in doors to not be harmed. Some children have been out of school for three years and are forgetting what they have previously studied.

Rayan* works for a ministry in Syria whose sole initiative is to provide education and trauma therapy to children. She explains how many of the children have lost their fathers and brothers to the war, the men fighting on either side of the forces.

While the teachers provide the children with the opportunity to learn English, Arabic and math, the teachers also believe it is important to teach the children not to have hatred or suspicion of one another and learn to love each other.

“Children feel like they are rejected. They are feeling [this] because they are children of rebels or terrorists and feel conflicted,” Rayan said. “People tell them they are the reason for why everything is happening. But I say, ‘You are children. God loves you. You are not the reason for what has happened; you are the hope of Syria.’”

Sara*, another teacher in Syria, asked that the world would pray for the children’s psychological conditions.

“Children in these three years are raised in a real hard situation,” she said. “They know all the types of weapons and they know all of the parties that are fighting, and kids at this age must know something else.”

 “All their games are guns and tanks and they are really in the trauma of war,” Sara said. “They know nothing except war and blood and fighting.”

Children are being used as propaganda in the war. Images of them holding guns can be seen on the web as well as video clips that show preteen boys involved in the combat. One eerie video depicts a boy soldier wailing after a friend is killed; with a pat on his back from an adult soldier, he continues walking amid the devastation.

International Law sets 18 as the minimum age for participation in direct hostilities, but the Human Rights Watch has interviewed many children between the ages of 14 and 18 who are involved in the conflict.

In addition to the threat of young boys being involved in the fighting, girls face a unique threat. Many young girls in Syria are at high risk of sexual violence, according to Save the Children.

Desperate not to subject their daughters to potential horrors, many families are making the difficult decision to marry their daughters to suitors in Syria and abroad.

“Early marriage is sometimes being used as a ‘cover’ for sexual exploitation, where girls are divorced after a short time and sent back to their families,” Save the Children wrote in a recent report called “Childhood Under Fire.”

The risks in Syria for children are great, while for the more than 1 million child refugees living outside of Syria; they face a different type of potential harm.

An increasing number of children have taken to the streets of Lebanon to sell or beg for money. Lebanon houses more than 826,669 registered Syrian refugees, with 52 percent of them being children. Many of the children are not in school and they are resorting to street work or manual labor to help provide for themselves or their families.

The Beqaa Valley in Lebanon is home to many Syrian families, and UNICEF is cautiously observing as the children go out each morning to the fields to perform adult labor. Maria Calvis, a UNICEF worker, said, “We are following up with NGOs to ensure the work is not exploitative or hazardous. We have also started a campaign to ensure parents are aware this is not the best thing for kids.”

In Lebanon the UN is launching a “Back to Learning” campaign, which “provides for informal education so children don’t fall too far behind.” They are holding classes for the Syrian children who reside in the Beqaa.

Another country greatly affected by the war, Jordan, is working alongside NGOs to provide schooling for Syrian refugees. More than half a million Syrians that were registered with the UN refugee agency at the end of September, were women and children. Children from 5 to 17 make up 25 percent of the Syrian refugee population in Jordan, according to the New York Times.

The Jordanian Ministry of Education has allowed for school programs for Syrians, permitting extra spots in schools to be filled by the children and also providing after school programs. Around 80 Jordanian schools have introduced extra daily schooling for the students.

Organizations throughout the region are fighting not to let this generation of children be forgotten. Faris*, a Christian Syrian, said, “We have so many kids that are growing up with the sounds of war. These kids — they shouldn’t have to listen to that. They should have a place that is peaceful and secure and not have to worry about the war. That is a big [prayer] request,” he said.

As Syrian Christians are working tirelessly to help the children around them who are struggling, organizations and ministries are working outside of Syria. The reason Rayan continues in her ministry to children in Syria is because “we want to show them that we are always available for them. We are standing with them.”

*Names changed for security reasons.

Eden Nelson is a writer for the International Mission Board based in the Middle East.