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Choices for Syrian children

As a direct result of the single worst humanitarian crisis of our time, the protracted Syrian Civil War, at least ½ a million people have been killed, including at least 50,000 children. Six years into the Civil War, Syrian children — a particularly vulnerable group — now have several options at their disposal, assuming they stay alive. They are the following.

Syrian children may choose to stay in their country amidst indiscriminate airstrikes, a veritable shortage of food and water, and virtually no access to medical or psychological services. They may not go to school, and their parents may not work to provide for them. In Aleppo, amidst unrestrained tears over a WhatsApp voice call last week, Ala’a cried, “I have not fed my child in one week. She is three. How much longer do you think she can go without food? I already lost my other daughter last week. She was hit by an airstrike at a neighbor’s house while playing. She was rushed to the hospital, but the doctors just left her to die on the floor. There were too many people in need and not enough help.” Attempting to rescue everyone injured is not possible. After all, there are only 30 doctors left in Aleppo, a city of 250,000 individuals.

Syrian children may choose to cross their country’s border and enter neighboring countries like Jordan or Lebanon. They may live in a refugee camp or in refugee settlements outside of camps along with millions of refugees. Or, in some instances, they may be denied entry due to shut borders and, instead, be forced to occupy barren land — much like the berm in between Jordan and Syria. There, more than 75,000 refugees remain stranded, 80 percent of whom are women and children. A few weeks ago, a humanitarian aid worker shared with me his experiences of delivering aid to refugees on the berm: “They look at you knowing that you are helping deny their humanity. I get to give them insufficient amounts of food and go back home. They have to stay — unprotected from the harsh desert conditions, unprotected from the war. Children sleep right next to where they are buried. They live and die at the same place.”

Finally, Syrian children may make the treacherous journey to Europe. There, they may get stranded in refugee camps across Greece along with 60,000 other individuals, awaiting for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s resettlement decision. The decision may take up to 18 months. The lucky ones get to join the rest of their family in Europe, but others know they may be deported back to Turkey. In the meantime, children await with no sufficient access to education or health services. A young girl named Rania recently told me,I am 10, but I feel like I am 16. I have seen dead people—so many of them. I dream about them sometimes even though I wish I would not. I keep seeing them. But I think I now know how to cope. I keep distracting myself to try to forget, and I think it is working.”

Millions of displaced Syrian children face ineffable conditions every day both across the Middle East and Europe. Hundreds of children die every month in Aleppo alone, let alone all of Syria. We must all work together to alleviate these conditions and ensure these children are given back their humanity.

Laila Soudi is a researcher in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford’s School of Medicine, as well as the director of mental health for SAMS Global Response. A native Syrian, Laila has been working with refugee populations for years.

Photo by Abdulaziz Dukhan