I recently returned from two days of visiting dozens of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to assess their needs and figure out how Mercy Corps can help. More than 35,000 Syrians have already registered as refugees in Lebanon, according to the UN refugee agency.
Most of the refugees I encountered were children, who've been uprooted from the only life they've ever known. We're planning to launch two of our signature youth programs — Comfort for Kids and Moving Forward— which will offer group activities and play-based interventions to help youth recover from the trauma of conflict and displacement by strengthening resilience and coping strategies.
Both programs were first developed after 9/11 to facilitate the emotional recovery of children in New York City, and have been adapted and used to help thousands of children who’ve lived through disaster and war.
Here are some notes on what I saw at a few stops:
Accompanied by our field officer Ghassan, who is based in Baalbeck in the Bekaa, and a volunteer who’s working with a local group supporting recently arrived Syrian refugees, I visited a multi-room, concrete building where five families were taking shelter. It was totally unfurnished.
There were a couple of sleeping mats on the floor that also acted as seating, which we were provided for our meeting with several of the family members. The men ranged in age between late 20s and late 30s, while their wives appeared to be around the same age. There were lots of kids everywhere, many with no shoes and sparse clothing. Several of the kids appeared relatively normal while others appeared nervous and detached.
They’d arrived three days earlier, and have had no contact with their other family members back in Syria due to the phone lines being down there. All the families we visited had said the same thing: They were in desperate need of news from home but couldn’t make contact.
When asked how the kids were holding up, one mother pointed to one of her children — a 7-year-old boy — and stated he was too afraid to be alone for even a minute, so she needed to accompany him to the bathroom.
A father called over another boy, around the same age, and showed how the boy’s hair was starting to turn gray due to the stress he was enduring. It was quite obvious his hair was indeed turning gray even though he was only 6-7 years old. The parents also noted that anytime the kids heard noise in the night, such as fireworks or car horns, they would start screaming thinking that people were coming to get them. I heard this on several visits.
Unlike how you or I might send children out of the room during "adult conversation," the parents were fine including some vivid details about their stressful and dangerous journey out of Syria — that made me uncomfortable when watching the kids just listening. Obviously the kids had been through it themselves, but it just hammered home the point that such young children shouldn’t have to endure the trauma of war. It was innocence lost.
The children have no toys or anything to occupy their time. One child had a matchbox size fire truck that he clutched in his hand as his most valued possession. The other dozen or so children had nothing.
I made a stop at a local toy store after the visit and returned with soccer balls for the boys, toy Smurfs for the girls and an assortment of other small things for them all. The smiles were memorable.
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At another location, a rural village on the outskirts of Baalbeck, we visited a refugee family living in the shell of a farmhouse. There we found a man and 5 of his 6 children. The house didn’t have any doors or windows but someone had donated a fridge for them. The kids were nervous about our visit and didn’t seem used to interaction with others. This family had been there for six months and the kids had yet to play with any other kids in the area.
The mother was not there because she had taken one of the children to the hospital due to sickness. The oldest daughter was probably 10 or 11, but looked wise beyond her years. She was responsible for her younger brothers and sisters and remained busy sweeping and caring for the kids while we talked to her father.
The kids looked at me for a long time, cautiously, not knowing if my visit was good or bad for them. It wasn’t until I ripped out several pieces of paper from a notebook we retrieved from the car and I made paper airplanes for everyone that the kids relaxed. We flew planes together and they finally smiled and started to have fun.
The father has no income, but is eager to find some type of work. Local organizations are providing his family a monthly ration of food so his needs are more for medicine and clothes for his kids, as well as other basic amenities.
My main takeaway was the need for more support for the children. As we were leaving I gave the oldest daughter a box of Tic-Tacs to pass out to her brothers and sisters. It’s all I had to give at the time. We asked the children if they would like to participate in our upcoming Comfort for Kids program and they seemed eager.
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One of our visits on day 2 of my trip to the Bekaa was to a large compound that acted as both a residence for a refugee family and a work area for the host family’s farming enterprise.
As we walked in, there were several adults sorting recently harvested tobacco, a common crop in the Bekaa. We were shown a kitchen, separate from the main house, that the host family had provided the family to live in.
When I walked over I was greeted by an amazing sight — seven little children, all sharing one mattress on the floor, just waking up. The youngest child was a toddler and already well awake and crawling around the floor. When the kids saw me they looked at me not knowing what to do. One really sweet girl instantly started playing a game of covering the blanket over her head and then popping it in and out to look at me. The room they were living in was very small and was indeed a functioning kitchen.
We were then shown chairs outside where we sat and the mother came over to join us. She was one of the women who we saw sorting tobacco on the way in. Through our discussions I learned she has brought over 10 children, the oldest no more than 12, all by herself.
The trip took 3 days and was dangerous. I asked how she managed it — knowing I have trouble keeping track of my two kids sometimes. “I don’t know," she responded. "My house was bombed so I left with the kids. I don’t remember much after that. Now I’m here."
Four of the kids are from another family, and I wasn’t able to determine where the parents of those children are. The toddler was soaked when I picked him up, but the woman has no diapers so she wasn’t too bothered. She mentioned she was helping the family out with the tobacco sorting but was okay with this because she had a place to stay.
As so often happens, it's the children in these circumstances who suffer the most. We're looking forward to helping alleviate the trauma in some of these children and get them back to doing what kids their age all over the world should be doing: playing, learning and enjoying their lives.
How You Can Help
Children are often the most vulnerable in the face of war or disaster. Your gift to our Syria Crisis Response will help us reach more kids who are suffering through the Syrian conflict. Donate today.