Children find a safe space to learn in conflict-torn Homs, Syrian Arab Republic

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By Iman Morooka

The city of Homs has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the Syrian conflict. UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Maria Calivis recently visited the city and met with affected families.

HOMS, Syrian Arab Republic, 26 March 2013 – Homs has suffered some of the heaviest and most relentless fighting in the Syrian conflict. Many neighbourhoods have been damaged or destroyed, leaving at least 600,000 of the city’s 2.1 million residents in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Given the continued violence and increased displacement here, the number is expected to be much higher.

UNICEF correspondent Marissa Aroy reports on the visit of UNICEF Regional Director Maria Calivis to Homs, Syrian Arab Republic

Essential services severely disrupted

UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Maria Calivis visited Homs last week and met with affected families, seeing first-hand the devastation the conflict has wreaked on residents, and the growing humanitarian needs. Ms Calivis also met with UNICEF partners and staff on the ground to discuss ways to strengthen UNICEF’s humanitarian response and partnerships for the benefit of children in need.

“Two years into the crisis, essential services have been severely disrupted,” Ms. Calivis said. “Buildings and neighbourhoods have been damaged, and some reduced to rubble, forcing people to flee their homes and livelihoods. Some families have had to move four or five times seeking safety.”

Safe spaces to learn and play

In an unfinished housing complex in Al-Wa’ar neighbourhood, where many displaced families from other parts Homs have taken shelter, Ms. Calivis observed UNICEF-supported remedial classes. Young boys and girls huddled closely together in the heated rooms, the sound of children’s laughter bouncing off walls decorated with brightly-coloured drawings and educational posters.

These makeshift classrooms are often the only form of education available for displaced children in Homs. “I wake up every morning excited to come to class,” said Oula, an 8-year-old girl. “I miss my old school. But at least here I can learn, draw and play with friends.”

According to a recent UNICEF assessment, hundreds of thousands of children across the country are being deprived of education – one in every five schools in the Syrian Arab Republic is either damaged, destroyed or sheltering internally displaced persons. In conflict-battered cities like Homs, many children have not attended school in nearly two years.

“Providing children a safe space to learn, play and overcome the trauma they have witnessed – even if for a short while – is crucial, for both children and their parents,” said Ms. Calivis. If education is not prioritized by the international community, she warned, “Syria’s children – particularly girls – risk becoming a ‘lost generation’, with enormous long-term consequences for the country’s future.”

Vaccination, water

In addition to providing educational services, UNICEF has begun a vaccination campaign against measles, mumps, rubella and polio. The campaign targets up to 2.5 million children through school facilities and displaced people’s shelters in Homs and other locations in the Syrian Arab Republic.

UNICEF is also supporting the much-needed upgrade and repair of water systems, providing water treatment supplies and installing water tanks and sanitation facilities in shelters for displaced children and families. In many areas of Homs and other cities across the Syrian Arab Republic, streets and buildings are littered with garbage, posing a large risk to children – particularly as the hot summer approaches.

Ms. Calivis expressed serious concerns about UNICEF’s low level of funding, which currently stands at only 20 per cent. “I was impressed to see how UNICEF and its partners are making an impact and helping children get by,” she said. “But I’m really worried that, given our funding shortfall, we will have to stop a number of life-saving activities, such as providing clean water and vaccinations against fatal diseases, as well as safe learning spaces for children. This will only exacerbate the difficulties faced by displaced families and their children inside Syria.”