Jablah, North Syria: “Don’t cry for us Syria” has recently become a motto/logo of sorts for many physically and psychologically brutalized youth around this ancient land. They are the youngsters who represent a new generation of Syrians, many of whom were born in this century. It is into their patriotic hands that the Syria’s Torch has been passed.
Amid all the dissension and fear-mongering surrounding refugees in the midst of a bloody civil/proxy war, many of Syria’s youth are focused on helping fellow Syrians. As much of the rest of the world seemingly passes its time pontificating and posturing in padded chairs and security councils, volunteers around Syria are risking their lives to help those in dire need and who are attempting to find safety.
The war statistics from Syria are fairly well known. As are the dangers of Syria’s youth heeding seductive Sirene calls to violence with offers of salaries and various perks and escapes from reality. The conflict here has, according to some NGO estimates, now claimed the lives of nearly half a million Syrians, out of a pre-war population of 22 million. More than 11 percent of the Syrian population is estimated to have been killed or injured. More than five million have fled the country while approximately 8 million are internally displaced. The UN estimates that nearly 12 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, more than six million being children ranging from infants to age 12. These distressing numbers rise every day and have left few Syrian families untouched as they carve a deep psychological scar on the population, none more so than upon the youth.
One consequence from more five years of civil war in their country is the pulling of Syria’s youth toward extremist groups due to myriad deprivations and personal traumas, loss of economic and educational opportunities, the destruction of infrastructure and spreading fighting; besieged areas, and much more. Youth unemployment now reaches nearly 90 percent in some areas of the country with no end in sight for this conflict. These factors, more than ideology cause many youth to join extremist groups such that many male adolescents end up joining armed groups for lack of a better option and for some income.
Many Syrian adolescents, who this observer has had the honor to meet, have experienced terrible psychological traumas, like losing family members and other conflict-related tragedies. The widely reported increase in the use of drugs and alcohol among adolescents, as a coping measure in the face of hardship, is a point of concern when it comes to the health of young Syrians. The financial resources of most Syrian families have become so limited, it is to the point that fathers cannot provide for their families and increasingly marry their daughters off prematurely. Where male mobility is hindered by security concerns, females may be the sole family support. Looking for basic necessities such as food, fuel and water, they often end up waiting in line for hours to receive relief assistance.
Fragmentation of family structure, tensions due to the economic situation, contrasting political views, exposure to sectarianism, and tribal conflict often result in a rise of adolescents’ insecurity and fear, a wish for rebellion, feelings of hatred, and radical thinking that can have potentially long-lasting results on their future and Syria’s. This trend is particularly evident in areas where sectarian and tribal conflicts are widespread.
At the same time, adolescents reveal great determination to improve lives here. Despite fearing for their lives as well as the lives of loved ones, Syria’s youth are today exhibiting extraordinary resilience and freely discuss with foreigners, various strategies that would help them and their fellow citizens. Foremost is the need felt by youngsters for the return of security and peace in the country for their parents and the overall community. Paralyzing fear and extreme sadness resulting from the war permeates every discussion with Syria youngsters who see the end of the conflict as the only hope for a better future. One youngster in the Wadi al Nasra (Valley of the Christian) near Homs, explained, “We do not know what is coming. We have a very long, painful road ahead but I know that our involvement change our country’s course.”
For this observer, some surprising reactions among Syria’s youth include a strong rejection of the forces inside and outside of Syria who seek to manipulate religions and sects for political purposes. Student’s frankness and detailed knowledge expressed is encouraging given their resistance to confessional political manipulation. It gives one hope for this country’s future. Syrian youth generally want no part of turning sects against one another and vow that after this war ends Syria will embrace all her people whether they are believers or not and with a blind eye to what sect or religion someone belongs to. “This is who we are as a people, two medical students explained to this observer, this is our heritage and our values and we shall return to them and hopefully learn from this ugly experience that distorted us and gave the world the wrong impression of who we are.”
Syrian adolescents are also calling for more opportunities to actively help their community and the people most severely affected by the situation, through volunteering and joining charities and relief organizations. According to a UNICEF survey of last year, roughly 60 percent of the interviewed adolescents would like to engage in activities, especially in relief work and related trainings (e.g., first aid), and recreational and cultural activities for their countrymen. There is currently a serious shortage of centers available at key locations.
Their strength and resilience comes from the love and support of parents and friends; from the community that shares their fate and the inspiring example of relief workers who devote their time to helping others as well as from within themselves and from their desire for a better future.
Syria’s new generation wants to be evaluated by their community with respect, their capabilities and potentials recognized, to be supported, understood and encouraged. Amidst sentiments of uncertainty on how the war here will develop, Syrian’s youth are committed in many ways to bring positive changes and improvements to their communities. Today they are feeding the hungry, organizing dozens of activities for children, repairing war damage, cleaning streets and alleys, trimming foliage in parks and along highways, tutoring kids out of regular schools, volunteering at hospitals and clinics, donating blood, organizing scout trips into the countryside, counseling and supporting traumatized patients, organizing funfairs and arts and crafts events for kids, teaching and conducting art projects to games to nutritious meals preparations, to discussions about what to do and what not to do to stay safe in their neighborhoods, and much more. Syria’s youngsters, like most youngsters are spectacular.
Parents of young people here in Syria are naturally deeply concerned about the numerous daily threats their children face and their bleak future. As a result, they often become overprotective and give little space or freedom to adolescents in a desperate effort to keep them safe. Parents themselves are under enormous stress and sometimes end up isolating their children in order to protect them without considering the psychological impact, particularly on adolescents. Parents’ restrictions create a deep feeling of frustration in adolescents, especially among girls, who feel locked inside the house, confined to their bedrooms and constantly longing to get out and be with their friends.
Nevertheless parents, while expressing disapproval to this observer for some of their children’s behavior, consider their children this country’s future and the only hope for a better Syria. They know the hardship that their children’s generation is experiencing and their delayed potential. Parents here know well that social tensions from the war negatively influence adolescent behavior. Finishing education is clearly a priority for 94 percent of parents surveyed last year by the NGO, Mercy Corp. A high percentage (81 percent) of adolescents who were interviewed by Merci Corps is currently studying, with the largest majority getting formal education in public and private schools. Nevertheless, 76 percent are facing serious difficulties in continuing their education. As one male adolescent explained, “We go to school every day. Sometimes there is no teacher, but we still go. It is better than sitting doing nothing.”
The main obstacle for all students here remains the security situation, which results in challenges to the school premises; the closure of schools; lack of teachers, books and supplies; and parents forcing their children to drop out because of fear for their safety as well as the financial need to work. Further, among displaced adolescents, a strong feeling of marginalization within the school environment often results in adolescents dropping out of school.
Those who are able to find a job (22 percent according to the UNHCR) dropped out of school and are currently working but they are often poorly paid. Driven by the need to help their families and sometimes being the only breadwinner in the household, adolescents work as shop assistants, street vendors, in construction and farming. The majority receive, on average, less than $100 per month.
Against this bleak backdrop, Syria’s youth refuse to be defeated or to abandon what many refer to as “Mother Syria.” Youngsters today in Syria are seeking educational activities and relief work and volunteering with charities and relief organizations for the purpose of helping their countrymen in need. Youngsters here explain that by helping others it gives them a sense of purpose and they deem it rewarding, even when dangerous. According to a UNICEF survey on last year, roughly 60 percent of the interviewed adolescents would like to engage in activities, especially in relief work and related trainings (e.g., first aid), and recreational and cultural activities for their countrymen. Syrian adolescents are also calling for more opportunities to actively help their community and the people most severely affected by the situation, through volunteering and joining charities and relief organizations. Their strength and resilience comes from the love and support of parents and friends; from the community that shares their fate and the inspiring example of relief workers who devote their time to helping others.
Though rare, some recreational activities, such as sports, especially football are available at times. They often are organized by local groups and schools. In some communities, religious groups engage with youth quite actively. Whatever the type of activity that adolescents take part in, there is always positive feedback that brings purpose to their lives and encourages them, especially if it involves helping others.
Hundreds of thousands of youngsters have fled Syria for a new life abroad. An equal number refused to leave and resolved to continue trying to salvage their beloved Syria recognizing that there were many needs that they can help fill on the grass roots level despite the increasingly complexity of the regional and international competition for Syria.
For this observer, surprising reactions among Syria’s youth include a strong rejection of the forces inside and outside of Syria who seek to manipulate religions and sects for political purposes. Students frankness and detailed knowledge expressed is encouraging given their resistance to confessional political manipulation is refreshing and gives one hope for this country’s future. They want no part of turning sects against one another and vow that after this war ends Syria will embrace all her people whether they are believers or not and with a blind eye to what sect or religion one belongs to. “This is who we are as a people, two medical students vising the crusader fortress Crac des Chevalier last week, explained to this observer, “this is our heritage and our values and we shall return to them and hopefully learn from this ugly experience that distorted us and gave the world the wrong impression of who we are.”
May Syria’s youth ever grasp tightly and proudly their country’s Torch as its flame brightens Syrian paths as they reclaim and rebuild this cradle of civilization.
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Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).