Syrian Children Yearn for Lost Classrooms as Talks StallDonna Abu-Nasr
Wafa al-Salem has lost two years of school because of the violence ripping through her country, Syria. While she’s now back in the classroom in Lebanon, she wonders if she will be able to catch up.
“I miss my classmates and the school,” said 11-year-old al-Salem, her green eyes sparkling with tears. “I want to become a pediatrician. I hope I still have a chance.”
Al-Salem and her family, now seeking refugee status in Beirut, are among more than 2 million Syrians forced by the three-year civil war to flee to neighboring countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. An additional 6.5 million, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a report, have been internally displaced, and more than 130,000 are dead.
The mounting numbers are one reason UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi is urging a faster pace for the peace talks he’s hosting in Geneva. Tens of thousands of Syrian civilians remain trapped with little food and medicine in besieged enclaves including Homs, where the UN brokered a cease-fire and partial evacuation starting last week. At least 1.9 million children have been forced to drop out of school since the conflict began in March 2011, the UNHCR said, citing government figures.
Both sides must “help Syria out of the nightmare its people have been living through,” Brahimi said yesterday.
The delegations from President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the non-Islamist opposition haven’t been able to even agree on the agenda of the Geneva talks, now in their second round.
‘Decades to Recover’
The opposition insists on focusing the discussions on a transitional administration where Assad has no role, while the president’s loyalists want to first tackle terrorism, a term the government uses to refer to rebel fighters.
“We don’t expect a major breakthrough this week,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday. “What we believe we need to continue to do is press the regime” to engage more seriously in this process, she said.
Brahimi met with the two delegations today with neither side reporting progress. An average of 236 people a day have been killed in Syria since the ceremonial opening of the talks in the Swiss city of Montreux on Jan. 22, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on reports from activists on the ground, said in an e-mail.
Even with no political settlement imminent, the issue of displaced Syrians should be addressed urgently, as the impact on Syria’s postwar economy and recovery is going to be “very taxing” and costly, said Jihad Azour, a former Lebanese finance minister who’s now vice president of advisory firm Booz & Co. in Beirut.
“The tendency is always to underestimate those kinds of non-visible consequences of any war of this kind, especially on the main capital, the human capital,” said Azour. “One more year of war will mean decades needed to recover.”
Last week’s exit of hundreds of civilians from rebel-held Homs was marred by breaches of the cease-fire that left 11 people dead, with UN and Syrian Red Crescent workers “deliberately targeted,” UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in an e-mailed statement.
She said 250,000 people are under siege in Syria, and the Homs evacuation shouldn’t be “a one-off event.”
Brahimi had pushed to ease the siege of Homs, blockaded by the government for almost two years, to help build confidence between the sides.
“Homs can be called a success but it has been six months in the making” to get a few hundred people out and a “little bit of food in,” Brahimi said at a news conference yesterday.
In Lebanon, a country of 4.3 million people, the number of displaced Syrians has exceeded 1 million, an issue that’s “more than a catastrophe” for Lebanese and Syrians, Social Affairs Minister Wael Abou Faour said in an interview.
“There was never a situation where the percentage of refugees vis-a-vis the local population was so high,” said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank director for the region.
He said the Bank has set up a trust fund to help Lebanon cope with the impact. The World Bank estimated in October that the Syrian war had cost Lebanon $2.6 billion.
“No country should be left to shoulder by itself such a burden,” he said.
At the UNHCR in Beirut, scores of children like al-Salem played around in the sun as their parents waited in line under yellow and orange tents to formally register as refugees. They’re hoping that status will entitle them to food, blankets and medical treatment for their children.
Haval Issa and his wife Judy Omar watched their two sons clamber up and down a white plastic chair. The couple left their home in Barzeh on the edge of Damascus and are hoping to have their request for immigration to a European country approved. “We want to give our children a better life,” said Issa.
Wafa al-Salem’s mother, Raja al-Salem, 26, said she worries about her daughter, who hasn’t gotten over the deaths of her cousins and grandparents in Kwaires in the northern province of Aleppo seven months ago.
“We were here when it happened,” said Raja al-Salem. “She didn’t get to say goodbye to them.”