Our vehicle roared down the street, the sign above us read “Aleppo 200km.” I often say that the scariest part of working in a war zone is the unknown, and barreling down the road I realized this trip was full of them.
Syria is seven years into their conflict. There’s no way to summarize the war in any neat paragraph. Due to the crisis, over five and a half million people live in exile across the region and six million people are displaced within the country. Inside Syria, 85 percent of the people now live in poverty, 71 percent of children suffer from multiple signs of PTSD. Many children are being forced into armed recruitment, sometimes as young as seven-years-old. The conflict has left and continues to leave thousands of orphans with little care or resources. The list goes on and since watching the crisis unfold, it was clear to me that how I responded to Syria, was something I was going to have to explain to my children and future grandchildren.
We arrived in Aleppo when it was already dark. We had been driving all day and the shadows of the ruined and bombed out buildings gave the city an eerie and deserted feeling. We checked into one of the only hotels left standing after the height of Aleppo’s conflict and were surprised at the amenities we found. Though it seemed like we had checked back into the 80’s, the wifi was up to speed, the bathroom was lined with marble and the TV played news from around the world.
As we traveled through the city for the next few days, my husband/co-worker/forever travel buddy, Edison and I were always introduced as the guests from Canada and Korea. Though my husband hails from America, our hosts leaned on his heritage during the many checkpoints we were stopped at. Everywhere we went our many hosts were so excited to take in the visitors and feed us some of the best food we’ve ever tasted. It’s incredibly humbling when you sit with people who have lived through years of war, who are currently suffering due to poverty, and yet they give all they could to show us the fruits of their land and teach us about Syrian food and culture. They asked challenging questions like what did the world think of their country, how did our friends and family feel about our trip to Aleppo and most resoundingly, “Why did you come, knowing the dangers that could await you? Why would you take the risk?”
Neither Edison nor I are strangers to war. We’ve been working in the DRCongo for years and run a non-profit called Justice Rising using education as a way to bring transformation to some of the worst areas hit by conflict. Since the crisis broke out in Syria we’ve been following the reports and asking ourselves, “How can we help? What are the practical ways that we can respond?” When we look throughout history we see it is not changed by those who accept the world as it is. Who resign an issue to “that’s not my problem.” History is written by those who let themselves be consumed with empathy for others and let love motivate them to create change. It’s love that will motivate us to go far beyond where comfort could take us.
That’s exactly what we have let happen. Going deep into conflict zones we’ve been able to see the power of education. Building schools, training teachers and developing community leaders has worked to bring peace to families and communities in the Congo. Now with Syria, we had hope that we could use a similar strategy of supporting education systems to bring transformation to other people living in war.
In Aleppo we were partnering with a local headmaster of a school in the area. They had a longstanding history of excellence but since the war, the school was forced to close their doors for two years as insurgents took over their facility. When they returned they had a lot of work to do to rebuild and had been struggling ever since to feel solid on their feet again. With the downturn in the economy since the war, parents were struggling to enroll their children in school and if they did manage to get them registered, families were often unable to pay basic school fees or buy books, uniforms or other necessities for their child’s education.
Education is a lifeline for children and one that the current generation could miss out on. Before the war enrollment rates in Syriawere nearly 100 percent, now however, Syria has one of the lowest enrollment rates in the world.
We felt very fortunate to be able to walk the halls of the school in Aleppo, sit in the classrooms, and speak with the students. We did our best to soak up everything we could from the kids, every hope they had and every heartbreaking story. Many spoke English, as it was a core requirement for the school, and so many of the students were eager to practice on us. One little girl, we’ll call her Sarah (for security reasons) left the largest impact on us.
Sarah told us a story of how during the height of the war she used to beg her dad to take her to get some sweets from the corner store. Because of the insecurities, it had been quite some time since she had last eaten some candy, so she thought she might prod just a bit more. “Just one!” she cried. One day, giving in to her request, he finally agreed and walked her down the street to buy her some sweets. Along the way, a bomb went off nearby and, devastatingly, Sarah lost her dad along with one of her legs.
Since the tragedy, her mom has struggled to care for Sarah and her siblings. Sarah’s dad had been the primary breadwinner. And now as a widow the financial burden of becoming the sole provider of the family, the mounting medical bills, and losing her husband on top of it all… it all felt like too much for Sarah’s mother.
As an orphan, you would think you would see Sarah carrying the burden with her at school that day, but contrarily, Sarah shared about her story with a smile on her face. She was still so hopeful about the future. “It was hard at first, too hard,” she said. But she shared with us how the school community rallied around her and her family in their time of need. They helped her get a prosthetic leg, sponsored her through school and worked alongside her mother.
Education is not just about learning and literacy, school can be a support system for families. Especially during times of war and crisis.
Many of the stories we heard took our breath away. These kids are so young and have seen so much but the crisis shows no sign of an end.
It’s those moments that I’m so grateful we have the tools to do more for them. By focusing on education for children living in conflict, we’re able to address the needs of kids who have lost one or both parents due to the crisis, as well as to work to see students supported for the future. By educating children in war we’re able to create a normalcy inside the classroom that overtime, can reduce lasting trauma in children. We’re also able to teach values that combat extremism and fight terrorism and address the mounting crisis of early child marriage and in turn prevent young girls from becoming child mothers.
The issue of addressing the orphan crisis is not a binary one. It’s multifaceted and we must look five, ten or twenty years down the road all the while focusing on the urgent need for quality education now.
Going forward, Justice Rising is partnering with the school in Aleppo to support orphans and students like Sarah in the time of need. It costs $130 per student for a year of education and our goal is to support all 900 of them.
One thing we saw from our time in Syria is that the country is at a tipping point. We could see an entire generation miss out on a quality education and the results of that impact the country for decades to come. Now is the time we must respond. That empathy would move our hearts to action and respond to support children living in war. Whether that be committing to partner with a child in Aleppo with a one time investment or creating a fundraiser to take on the education of five kids or ten kids in Aleppo. Together we can stand for the future generation of Syria and hope to fight the orphan crisis in places with extreme war and crisis.