Syrian Children in Tripoli: Paying the Price of Politics

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A Syrian refugee boy, whose face is painted with a Syrian opposition flag, takes part in a protest calling for international protection for Syria's anti-government protesters and better living conditions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, in front of the Red Cross offices in Tripoli, northern Lebanon 26 February 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Omar Ibrahim)

By: Serene Assir

Published Wednesday, February 29, 2012

In Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, where hundreds of Syrian families have taken refuge after being displaced from their hometowns and cities, children pay the highest price for ongoing violence in their country.

Tripoli – Unusually articulate and sociable for her age, 10-year-old Asma refused to be photographed while she told the story of how she says regular Syrian military forces broke into her school in Hama. “When they attacked, my friend Ghinwa started shouting slogans against Bashar,” Asma said, adding that Ghinwa and her are the same age. “They shot her in the leg.”

It was a Thursday in December, while Asma and her family still lived in Hama. “I don’t want you to film me because when we go back, they will recognize me and arrest me,” she said.

Children at her Muhaddase School in central Hama had heard rumors that other schools nearby had been turned into makeshift bases for the regular Syrian army. “We were afraid of going back to class, but we had to,” Asma said. “That is, until we came to Lebanon in December,” she added. Now, she doesn’t go to school at all.

Children as Victims of Violence

“Our children have experienced real fear,” said Abu Tareq, also from Hama. Like most Syrian refugees in Lebanon, he refused to disclose his real name. “It took my wife and me a lot of effort to make our children feel safe,” the father of five young children said. “We’ve been out of Syria since mid-Ramadan [August 2011] but they’re still scared by any loud noise they hear.”

Indeed, violence has become so systematic now in several areas of Syria, it had started to emerge that regime was no longer behind all the destruction. According to the February 22 edition of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the regime provided details of so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) violations.

“On February 15, the government provided the commission with information on physical damage and looting concerning 866 schools,” the report read, including in cities such as Idlib, Hama, and Damascus.

Children’s lives were severely disrupted. The OHCHR report cited Assad as announcing that by January 2012, enrollment in schools had dropped by half. “Children’s education was disrupted by the violence, movement restrictions imposed by the government, and opposition strikes and boycotts of schools,” the report read.

Worse, children suffered arbitrary detention and torture in the same way as adults, while the “state authorities made no visible efforts to protect children’s rights.”

Out of the Violence, Into the Unknown

Out of Syria, children like Abu Tareq’s and 10-year-old Asma have had to try and overcome the distress of forced displacement. They have also had to live with the memory of violence they either heard about, witnessed, or suffered.

Abu Tareq’s children were more fortunate than others in that they started attending a Lebanese government school in September. It took them several months to adapt to the new system, with 12-year-old Elham complaining that “I used to get much better marks in Syria.” Still, she said, “I am doing better now than I was at the start of the year.”

As of February 17, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) statistics showed that there were 6,522 registered Syrians in Lebanon who had been displaced by violence. In all, 64 percent of those displaced and registered with the agency were minors. Of those, 46 percent were under 11 years old.

Working in tandem with the Lebanese Higher Relief Council (HRC), UNHCR has kept track of school enrollment levels among registered refugee children. According to the latest figures, “a total of 465 displaced children have enrolled into public schools.”

While enrollment did not reflect attendance levels – which were in fact lower – public schooling was simply not an option for children like Asma, who arrived in Lebanon too late to sign up. This was because children who do not enroll in school by December had to wait for the next academic year.

In addition, there were concerns about children whose families had not registered with UNHCR, and therefore did not have access to public education at all. A Syrian refugee network, the Coordination Committees for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, estimated in early February that there were about 1,177 Syrian families in Tripoli alone.

With each family averaging five members, according to Coordination Committees volunteer Mustafa, the total number of Syrian refugees in Tripoli was nearly as high as the UNHCR’s figures for registered refugees in the whole of Lebanon.

While the UNHCR and HRC were responsible for covering school registration fees, Abu Tareq said “the money arrived three months late. So did the school books. By the time the books had arrived, I had already bought my children’s. We had no use for them.”

Public school registration fees cost families LL50,000 (US$33.22) per child. For parents with several children, that was a high sum to pay for what should be free schooling. In that sense, they were no worse off than many Lebanese families in north Lebanon, which the UNDP classified as one of the country’s four poorest areas.

Feeling Abandoned

In spite of the international media’s focus on the Syrian crisis, refugees in Tripoli complained about the lack of effective, rights-based action. With children of refugees suffering from distress, schooling difficulties, and uncertainty for the future, it appeared especially scandalous that so much was being said, while so little was being done.

“With so much talk about Syria at the higher political level, on the ground we feel that we have been abandoned,” said Mustafa.

“If the international community actually cared about us, we would get assistance. The politicians keep talking about Syria. But where are the NGOs? The more time passes, the more we feel are being used,” added Mustafa.

Mustafa went on to say that many families have not registered with the UNHCR because they were afraid that their data might be sent on to the Syrian authorities. Public information officer Dana Sleiman said there were no grounds for such concerns.

But in a country with precious few social services for the local population, Syrian refugees, specially children, might feel a heightened sense of marginalization. “There are people who go to bed without dinner,” said Abu Tareq, who added, “Our children shouldn’t be made to bear the burden of us being for or against the revolution. They have rights.”

Meanwhile the likelihood that the situation in Syria will be resolved any time soon is being put to the test even be the most hopeful of children.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” said Elham, forgetting her usual sense of humor, “I might have to be here next year. I would love to go back to Hama, but I am afraid. I don’t want to go back now. It is very bad there.”


Children are the victims and the heroes of the wars.
They have learn how to suffer the bombings.
Accept the loss of family or friends at such early age.
Learn how to be refugees and live under difficult circumstances. All that has to be taken without questioning because they are only children. Yet they are the ones who keep it in their memories and have to adapt to new schooling, or making new friends or even enemies. All that is being ignored by the Lebanese Government who does not offer a better care for families with children that are only seeking refuge and need all the humanitarian support.

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