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Tuesday 25 July 2017

Peter Power: I've met the children who will suffer if we ignore the crisis in Syria

Za'atari refugee camp in Syria
Za'atari refugee camp in Syria

This time last week, I was in Za'atari refugee camp on the border between Syria and Jordan.

Since my last visit 11 months ago, the situation for Syrian children has deteriorated.

Za'atari is home to 84,000 Syrian refugees who've fled violence and brutality.

That's more than the capacity of Croke Park, living in tents and prefabs across 3.5kms of arid, dessert landscape. Fifty-six percent of them are children.

At night the 40,000 children cramped into this hostile environment hear the sounds of artillery fire across the border in Syria, just 25km away.

During my visit, I met families who've experienced unimaginable horror, forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on their backs. I met children who have seen things no child should ever see.

Ayat is 12, though she has poise beyond her years. We first meet at her school, where she tugs at a colleague's sleeve and says, quite plainly, "My mother is dead".

My translator reassures her as we walk to the tent where she now lives with her father and four siblings. Her father talks about fleeing Syria. His wife was dead; he literally wrapped his arms around his children, in an effort to protect them.

"The little one was really, really sick. I thought she was going to die," he remembers. Back in Syria, they were a middle-class family. Now, they are destitute and living in a tent.

Za'atari will soon be blanketed in snow. The winters are harsh here, with freezing winds and below zero temperatures.

I met children with nothing to wear on their feet except sandals. Families sleep in tents with no insulation, as the temperature drops well below zero each night.

I met 40-day-old Adnan and his mother, Fatima, who tries desperately to keep him warm.

UNICEF, thanks to the generosity of our supporters, is working to provide winter clothes, boots and blankets to these children.

There is hope in Za'atari too. We visit a classroom with 60 children packed tightly into their seats, hungry for knowledge. Due to space constraints, children go to school in shifts: girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon.

Around 19,500 children are enrolled in schools supported by UNICEF and their enthusiasm for learning is boundless. Other children are not so lucky. Yosef (13) is not in school. His elderly father is unable to work and it's Yosef who provides for the family.

CAMP

He uses a wheelbarrow to transport essentials around the camp, earning a few dollars a day.

The sheer scale of the operation in the Za'atari Refugee Camp, and the amount of money required to finance it, is breathtaking. Providing safe, clean drinking water for 80,000 people is especially challenging.

Jordan is the fourth most arid country on earth. Two boreholes provide 2.2 million litres of water each day, and the remainder is brought in through a trucking system.

With little hope of a resolution, the conflict is Syria continues to force families from their homes.

Across the region, UNICEF is working to serve 5.6 million children in need of humanitarian support.

This is the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War Two. If we ignore it, it's the children who will suffer and Syria will be home to a lost generation.

Peter Power is UNICEF Ireland's Executive Director

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