In Syria today, 10-year-olds across the country are now as old as the war. It’s hard to believe because it doesn’t make the headlines anymore, but March 15 marks a decade since the start of the brutal conflict. I was first introduced to the Syrian refugee crisis on the shores of Lesvos, Greece in 2015. It was then that a father climbed off of a raft, handing me his 5-year-old daughter, wrapped up in a pink jacket and orange life-preserver. I saw that her eyes were closed, and I immediately feared for the worst. I let out a large sigh of relief as she squeezed my pinky, but I will never forget that moment and this child — this little girl who fled violence and though she found refuge, five years later, her peers now at the ages of 10 have only lived a life of war. Back then I never thought the war would last this long. But now, very sadly, there is a whole generation of children that has grown up knowing nothing but life in a war zone.
In many ways, they’re like 10-year-olds right here in America. They are like my two sons at that age. They have hopes and dreams for the future like kids all over the world do. But they’ve also witnessed horrors that the rest of us can only hope we will never experience. Time and again, they’ve seen bombs drop from the sky. They’ve seen their homes destroyed and family members killed before their eyes. They’ve seen catastrophic — and at times, life-changing — injuries inflicted on their loved ones. And at such a young age, they’ve already experienced more suffering than many of us will experience in our entire lifetimes. In the words of 10-year-old Sara*:
“I remember our home and our land back in Ghouta. Life was tough there because there were airstrikes all the time. I have beautiful memories of our home although I feel sad when I remember it. My dream for the future is to go back to Ghouta and to become a doctor.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to work out what might have inspired her to want to pursue this profession. Ghouta was under siege between 2013 and 2018, and towards the end, thousands of civilians — including children — were injured in a deadly bombing campaign.
Although she dreams of being a doctor, Sara is three years behind in school. As a result of the conflict, she’s been displaced from her home more than 14 times, and across the country, there are 2.4 million children in a similar situation. Ten-year-old Murad* is one of them, but he has an added layer of responsibility, as he has to work to support his family.
“I work in a car tire repair shop. My father went missing and so I have to make a living for my family. I can’t go to school and leave them with nothing. I have to help them with buying food. It’s my dream to go back to school.”
He wants to become a teacher, but because of the conflict and just like Sara, he’s been constantly on the move, fleeing his home every few months, attending school when it’s safe to do so, only to have to flee again when the violence intensifies. He’s been out of school for almost four years now, he doesn’t know how to read or write, and he doesn’t know when he’ll ever get the chance to learn.
In northwest Syria where both he and Sara now live, airstrikes and shelling are still a regular occurrence — even though there’s meant to be a ceasefire. It’s unquestionably dangerous where they are, and they desperately want peace. But even when the bombing stops, their suffering continues. The psychological impact of a decade of fighting cannot be underestimated, and although children are resilient and can often bounce back from adversity, they need dedicated support to be able to do so. School is one of the best places where they can get this kind of support, but far too many children like Sara and Murad do not have the opportunity to go. Schools have been destroyed, the bombing means they have to flee once again, and increasing numbers of children like Murad are having to work, instead of going to school.
When I visited the Syrian border in 2019, it was hard to imagine that the situation could get any worse for children in Syria, but over the past year the suffering has somehow managed to deepen further. As well as being in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Second World War, the country is now also on the brink of a major hunger crisis, with 12.4 million people — that is almost 60 percent of the population — now going hungry. People have lost their jobs and the value of the Syrian currency has plummeted. Food prices have gone through the roof. Even bread, which is a staple at almost every meal in Syria, is becoming unaffordable — and children, like Murad, are suffering the consequences.
There is a lot that remains unsaid, but it is very clear that life for today’s 10-year-olds is exceptionally tough. In the face of such adversity then, it is remarkable that in spite of the hardships they face, they still have hopes for the future. And thankfully, there are organizations like the International Rescue Committee who are helping them keep their dreams alive. They’re working tirelessly to provide children like Sara and Murad with support to help them overcome what they’ve witnessed. And they’re helping their families find work opportunities so that they can make it possible for their children to stay in school. Please join me in supporting them so that we can help give Sara, Murad and all of Syria’s children, the same chance of a bright future that children right here in America have. After 10 years of war we must not forget about Syria, and above all, we must not give up hope for Syria’s children. We urgently need this deadly conflict to end — not only to prevent further loss of life but also to ensure that the children who will forever be known as the generation of the Syrian war are able to live their lives without fearing for them, and can go on to achieve their dreams.
(*Editor’s note: names have been changed to protect children’s’ identities.)
For the past six years, Mandy Patinkin has served as ambassador to International Rescue Committee, where he has witnessed the refugee crisis firsthand, meeting with refugees in Greece, Germany, Italy, Uganda, Serbia, and most recently on the Syrian border. He has been incredibly involved and vocal, advocating for governments around the world to lift bans and welcome the millions of men, women, and children who have be forced to flee their countries for safety and find themselves caught in crisis and perpetual limbo.