When Syrian children get ready to return to school this fall, many will be carrying a weight much heavier than a backpack.
They carry memories of fleeing their homes while bombing, shelling, shooting and raids were happening around them. The loss of family members and neighbors who have died in the Syrian conflict weigh on them.
Some worry that they will not have a place to live or that they won’t be able to stay where they are currently sheltered. Others aren’t sure they will be able to attend school either because there’s no school to attend or because their families are running out of money. Paying tuition or buying school supplies is a lower priority than food.
“The children are most affected by what’s going on, especially psychologically,” said Bishop Jean Kawak, who visited MCC U.S. offices in Akron in July. He is a spiritual director for children and youth leader of the Syrian Orthodox Diocese in Damascus. When he asks children what game they would like to play, they suggest violent games, he said.
“The most important thing to me is that now our children believe in the power of violence. We need to teach them to be peaceful, to have collaboration with everyone. We need to teach them to accept everyone.”
Concern for the children affected by the Syrian crisis has been part of almost every plan Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has implemented with its partners since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, more than two years ago. Children who are affected are not just Syrian, but also those in Jordan and Lebanon, who have to share their schools, food, homes and resources with relatives or guests.
MCC has committed almost $8.2 million in response to the Syrian crisis, providing locally bought food, clothing and shoes, cash assistance for rent and other priorities, and material resources – blankets, relief kits, hygiene kits – for almost 9,555 Syrian families. Peacebuilding training – trauma response, conflict resolution, interfaith dialogue – has been part of creating a more secure environment for adults and children.
MCC’s partners in Jordan have distributed more than 50,000 school kits and partners in Syria and Lebanon have distributed 27,000 kits. In addition, MCC has supported after-school educational programs, summer camps and special events specifically for children.
Getting children into school is the most positive way to help refugees and displaced children within Syria to cope, said the Rev. Paul Haidostian, president of Haigazian University in Beirut and partner of MCC Lebanon.
The principal of an Armenian Evangelical School recently told him: “Education continues to be important when children are in crisis primarily for two reasons: school life gives a sense of ‘normalness’ to the child’s psyche. The daily routine is back. Secondly, when the child is studying, he/she feels more productive and learning in itself is therapeutic.”
In Amman, Jordan, however, not every Syrian child can go to school, said Colin Gilbert, project director for Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) in Jordan. MCC supports its kindergarten and informal education for refugees of all ages and nationalities after school.
“Although Syrian children have access to government primary schools in Jordan, many find themselves in classes of more than 60 students, and some schools have been turning Syrians away due to the high number of students in classes,” Gilbert said.
The children who come to JRS get educational support and participate in social and sports activities. A part-time psychologist is available and support workers make home visits to talk with families and connect them with resources, including other refugees.
“The children are eager to learn,” Gilbert said, “and they can experience a sense of normalcy, different from the war-torn environment that has created instability in their lives.”
Housing is a significant, unstable factor for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where the government has not provided shelter for refugees, said Ali Jammoul, project officer and volunteer coordinator for Development for People and Nature Association (DPNA), an MCC partner.
“The sheltering crisis imposes a vast scope of bad influence on the whole quality of life of Syrian families and specifically children,” Jammoul said. “It leads to various problems, such as disease, epidemics, inaccessible drinking water, sanitation and hygiene issues, living in places that are not suitable for living, insecurity, sexual harassment, domestic violence, no ability to attend schools.”
Worse, Jammoul said, families who have used their savings to rent houses are finding their money is dwindling. He expects more families to become homeless if the crisis continues.
DPNA and MCC have been working together to provide psychosocial activities at one of the biggest shelters in Lebanon, based in and around a partially built school building. DPNA conducts art workshops, group games and musical activities for the children as well as distributing kits and blankets.
“The children love it when the young adults from our partner agencies come to do activities with them. They run up to them when they arrive and trail after them when they leave,” said Sarah Adams, MCC representative for Syria and Lebanon. Adams is from Westerville, Ohio.
“When the partners come to do activities, the kids have a few hours each week when they are treated to lots of extra love and positive energy, a time to relax and feel like normal, silly kids again.”
MCC continues to ask for donations to support its Syrian crisis response. Donations can be made by phone, 1-888-563-4676, or online at donate.mcc.org. Relief kits and hygiene kits are especially needed.
Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S.