This week, a milestone occurred in the world. Can you name it? For many of us, wrapped up tight in the comfort of our homes and families, it was a nearly imperceptible watershed — but for the people in one corner of the planet, it’s a stark reminder of the uprooting of life as they once knew it.
You see, Wednesday, March 15 marks six years since the start of the Syrian conflict.
As the mother of a child who’ll soon turn 6, it’s hard to imagine my little girl’s life in the context of so much pain and suffering. But during the six years in which my daughter’s life has been filled with laughter and happiness, millions of children have been displaced due to the Syrian conflict.
In total, after six years of war, nearly 6 million children now depend on humanitarian assistance. That represents a twelvefold increase from just five years ago.
Despite the efforts of world humanitarian organization UNICEF, the situation is still deteriorating six years after its start — at least 652 children were killed in 2016, making it the worst year on record for Syria’s children since the formal verification of child casualties began in 2014.
We’ve all seen the haunting images: a Syrian toddler’s body washed upon a beach, the bloodied little Syrian boy who’d survived a bombing. How can I not think of those little lost souls every night when I tuck my children into their warm beds in their warm rooms in their warm home that we are so fortunate to have? How can I not hope and pray that more Syrian families will find their way to the safety and shelter of our shores than wind up limp and lifeless on another?
And how, above all, can I help? It seems impossible sometimes not to feel powerless against the darkness.
Enter Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. As part of our #MamasMakeChange series, we’re spotlighting women who aren’t just moms — they’re also innovators and change-makers — and Stern’s story will inspire you to be a voice for Syrian children and realize that one mama can make a difference.
UNICEF has been working with Syria since 1970, supporting the country’s children and families long before the crisis began. Tangentially, Stern says, she has been involved from the onset. However, she shares that her involvement has also been influenced by personal factors.
“I have a very close friend who is from Syria, and she lost her brother in this crisis,” Stern told SheKnows. “She’s lived in the United States for many years, and she was actually the founder of our California board of UNICEF. Because we’re very close friends, I kind of bore witness to the crisis with her. That brought me to the table in a way that this was not an abstract thing happening an ocean away, but something happening to someone whom I dearly love.”
Since that time, Stern has traveled often to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan to aid in the Syrian crisis efforts. And although no singular experience has solidified her conviction to help (they all affect her), Stern points to one specific moment that really drove home the humanity of the crisis.
Speaking to a man living in the Zaatari camp, Stern listened as he described his home in Damascus — the home his family was in when a bomb hit.
“‘It was multiple bedrooms,’ he said, and he kept smacking one hand against the other hand trying to make a point. ‘Caryl, I had cars, we had televisions.’ And then he continuously said, ‘My children have laptops.'”
“I can still see him in my mind, beating his hands together. My children have laptops. And I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘I have a home, I have several bedrooms, I have cars, I have televisions, and my children have laptops.”
When the bomb hit the man’s home, he lost his wife. His 12-year-old daughter was injured and, unable to find medical help for her, he hoisted her on his shoulders and carried her all the way to Jordan. Once a happy, affluent family living in a large comfortable home, the man and his daughter had been living in a tent with seven other relatives since they’d arrived at the Zaatari camp.
At night, because there were no lights in the camp at the time, the man couldn’t let his daughter out of the tent if she had to use the restroom. So, she had to pee in a corner.
“Remember being a 12-year-old girl?” Stern asks. “Can you imagine being in a tent with your father and other men in a culture in which modesty is critical, and you have to pee in a corner? There was something about that for me — I keep picturing him slapping his hands, saying, ‘My children have laptops,’ while I watched a little beautiful 12-year-old girl who has to pee in a corner — that was beyond what I could accept.”
On the ground every day, UNICEF is working to try to ensure children can have as normal a childhood as possible as this conflict wages on.
In 2016 alone, more than 3.6 million children received education support, including textbooks, supplies and support with formal and informal school services. More than 21 million children have been vaccinated against polio in Syria and surrounding areas.
And more than 1 million people have been provided psychosocial support to help them cope with their experiences.
“There was a study out of Harvard a few years ago that showed when children bear witness to extreme violence, there are actual brain changes that take place if not addressed that become permanent,” Stern recalled. “This entire generation is being raised amid horrific conflict and violence and born witnessing things that no child should see… the psychosocial support is so important.”
To that end, UNICEF has also created child-friendly spaces in the camp where kids just get to be kids: singing songs, playing soccer and hopefully forgetting for a moment where they are.
“These kids are hysterically funny! So you’re in the middle of hell, but you’re laughing. And inevitably with kids — I always say it’s like being the Pied Piper — they hang on your arms, your legs, you do the elephant walk with them on your feet,” she explained.
Let that sink in for a minute. They are kids.
“They don’t see themselves as refugees or immigrants or whatever labels Americans have put on them. They are children! They laugh and they cry. You sit in camp with an 11-year-old girl, and you talk about boys. It’s not any different in camp because this is life as they know it. They may have a greater tenacity than the average American kids because they’ve been forced to have that tenacity, but at the heart of it they are still kids,” Stern said.
That tenacity was readily apparent one long day at camp when Stern and her fellow UNICEF-ers worked all day without breaking to eat. Realizing the children who’d been following them all day — a 4-year-old boy with his 12-year-old sister who was carrying the orphaned baby of a relative in her arms — hadn’t eaten either, a donor gave the little boy a micronutrient-enriched biscuit.
Immediately and without hesitation, the little boy broke it in half and gave one side to the baby.
“We all cried,” Stern admitted. “I mean, talk about losing it. He has no shoes on, he has no coat on. It’s cold!… No one had to say to him, ‘You just got a gift; share it.’ He knew he had gotten a gift, and he shared it.”
Continuing, Stern said, “That’s the tenacity. That’s the spirit. That’s what makes me believe that as horrible as it is, if we can get these kids educated — if we can help them to just sustain themselves through this crisis — they may actually come out with more hope for the world than any of us have and a better understanding of what it means to be a community and support one another.”
For Stern, being a mother certainly adds nuance of perspective to the crisis in Syria. Not only does she see the pain of the child now, but also the child of the mother who has to suffer through seeing her child hurting — a pain which all moms know to be the worst kind.
“I’m not only a child advocate,” she underscored.
“I’m a mom advocate, because no woman should have to make the choices I’ve seen many of the [people in the] places I’ve visited have to make. They will talk about their own pain of what it was like to lose their home, their family, their husband, their house. They can usually tell me those stories. But when they have to tell me what it’s been like for their children, they weep… and I understand that.”
Ready to help Stern and UNICEF put these kids first? Us too. Let’s make sure the Syrian conflict doesn’t have a seventh anniversary. Here’s what you can do, Mamas:
VIEW the video series UNICEF launched in honor of the anniversary: “The Syria I Want,” featuring some of Syria’s children and the hopes they have for themselves, for fellow children and for their home country. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8fDOWfvqm1bpifrYmQwEOei143CHWmZ-
SHARE on your social channels “What I wish for every Syrian child…” with hashtag #TheSyriaIWant
Before you go, check out our slideshow below.