Tanks, shells and mortars are hardly the norm in children’s drawings, not to mention a bloodied face or arm.
But when I recently gave paper and crayons to Syrian children who have taken refuge in Lebanon, their artistic efforts drove home how most have seen horrors that no child should have to witness.
The children and their parents are among 50 families taking shelter in a mosque in Arsal, near the Syrian border. The large influx of those fleeing the fighting has strained the building’s sanitary infrastructure.
Najib, an agricultural worker from al-Qusayr near Homs, told me his story.
He had arrived in Arsal with his family a few weeks earlier in mid-August 2012.
“When the [Syrian] army attacked al-Qusayr, they bombed our neighbourhood and we saw the soldiers with their guns in streets, shooting at people. We took the children and we ran away. I did not know where to go, we heard shooting and we were scared. We arrived in the fields outside the city and we stayed there for 10 days, under the trees. When I think about what happened, I feel very bad.”
When Najib’s family arrived across the border in Arsal, they had no place to go. After sleeping in the streets for a week, they were finally told they could live in the mosque’s basement, underneath the stairs.
He went on: “I am sick, I have kidney disease and if I could I would work here to earn money but I cannot. Thank God we have good relations with the other Syrian families and we help each other. My wife is pregnant, it is her sixth month. She needs a caesarean operation, it costs 800,000 Lebanese Pounds [approximately US$530] and I don’t have the money….It’s been one and a half years since my children went to school, I don’t know if they will be able to go to school here, we were told we had to wait. They say there are NGOs who help us but we don’t see any help coming.”
Others who have fled Syria have been housed in schools which were closed over the summer. With the new school year about to begin, they have now been told to leave. With pressure on local housing increasing as refugees continue to pour into the country, it’s not clear where they will be able to go, despite the efforts of local and international organizations to help them.
The Lebanese government should be commended for its efforts to host large numbers of refugees crossing from Syria. According to the United Nations refugee agency’s latest figures, approximately 65,000 individuals have registered as refugees or are awaiting registration, while actual numbers may be much higher.
The international community must do more, in the spirit of solidarity and responsibility sharing, to support Lebanon, as well as neighbouring countries, by providing much-needed financial and other assistance. As of the end of August, the international community had only donated around a third of the funding needed to support the UN refugee agency's appeal for Syrian refugees.
Without adequate funding, those who have fled the violence in Syria will be left without adequate protection, and in poor conditions which breed resentment and – on occasion – violence, as happened in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp recently.
Children will be left without a chance to play and forget the horrors they have witnessed, or to restart their interrupted schooling or to get adequate psycho-social support.
Although it may have helped to relieve the boredom in their grim surroundings, a few pieces of paper and crayons brought by a human rights researcher are no substitute for the international assistance these children and their families so urgently need.