Geert Cappelaere – Regional Director, UNICEF MENA
Congratulations are in place for this heartwarming project, for results from children for children.
For all people who made this possible; thank you so very much and warmest thanks for Jad and Elias Rahbani. Without you, we wouldn’t be sitting here this morning.
Warm thanks to the European Union; to Johannes Hahn (EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations to Commissioner), Michael Köhler (Director for the Southern Neighbourhood at the European Commission’s DG NEAR) and Nadim Karkutli (Manager of the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis, the 'Madad Fund); who couldn’t be here with us today. Without their support we wouldn’t be sitting here. The EU must be praised for its trust in UNICEF on this project. A trust that has been helping us for many years to support millions of Syrian children.
Deep appreciation for the UNICEF communication team at the Regional Office and in the different UNICEF country offices on the ground in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. They are working for the most vulnerable children including Syrian children.
Colleagues and friends,
Here we are again, for the eighth time, saddened by the impact on children of a senseless war. We in UNICEF continue hoping that Syrian children - be they in Syria or living as refugees - that their stolen childhood is returned, restored. We continue hoping that next year, there will be no need to mark the anniversary of a brutal war on children.
I had the privilege two weeks ago to join a group of Syrian children inside Syria. We spent an entire morning singing Elias Rahbani’s beautiful children’s songs. A young girl sitting next to me - let me call her Rana - broke suddenly out in tears. We were singing ‘Mabrouk
’, a song celebrating a dad’s birthday.
These are the lyrics triggering Rana’s tears:
“You are the one who raised me, stayed awake all night, you held me on your shoulders, moving me from side to side. What can I offer you other than to light candles, and the love I have for you in my heart?”
We took Rana aside in tears and tried to understand what made her cry so much. Her words were simple: Rana had lost her dad very early on in the war, she still misses him every day. Her mom remarried – probably the only way for her and her children to survive. Her stepfather is violent with Rana.
In the eight years of war, Rana told us that she had been displaced at least four times - at least that is what she remembers. Four times she had lost friends, four times she lost out on education and saw her schooling interrupted. Rana’s story is just one reminder on how it feels for a Syrian child today.
After we spoke with her for half an hour, Rana was very keen to rejoin the group. Just another expression on how resilient children can be. She enjoyed singing. She told us it allowed her to make new friends. It allowed her to sing together with her mom, her auntie and grandfather who all remembered the songs from when they were children. It allowed Rana to regain a bit of her childhood.
The 11 songs “from children for children” are indeed meant to bring a little bit childhood back for millions of Syrian children. For the 8 million Syrian children who today are still in dire need of the most basic humanitarian assistance.
The songs have already proven very helpful in dealing with the psycho-social distress children are coping with. Songs, a simple remedy – bringing some normality back, like going to school or being able to play again.
The songs bring children, families, communities together; rebuilding some of the broken social fabric in Syria and even connecting refugee or displaced children with children from the communities who are generously hosting them.
Let me turn to 2018 and some of the very stark statistics, reflecting on how hard the war continues to hit children. 2018 has indeed been another bad year for children in Syria.
Colleagues and friends,
We cannot allow ourselves to be fooled by claims of military victory. There so far little gained from a children’s perspective. Every single day in 2018, three children were killed in Syria. And these are the numbers that we as UNICEF and the UN have been able to verify. We can assume that the actual number of children killed is likely much higher.
Almost every day in 2018, a school or a health facility has been targeted, preventing children once again from going to school, benefitting from education, benefitting from much needed health services.
Let me be very clear. 2019 has not started on a better foot for children in Syria. In Northeast Syria alone, every day since January 2019 a child has died fleeing the fight against ISIS in the areas of Hajjin and Barghouz. Over 65,000 people, 90 per cent of them children and women, have had to find refuge in the Al Hole refugee camp, meant to host a maximum of 20,000 people. Today more than 65,000 have to be accommodated. I can tell you that the harsh winter has been hitting them hard, particularly on women and children in the camp.
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, we estimate that one million children have been born from Syrian families living in refugee-host countries. Many of them remain unregistered. Without viable and durable solutions, these children are at risk of being stateless. A bleak future.
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, 4 million children are estimated to have been born inside. Their future is equally bleak in the absence of a political solution to this senseless war.
So, one million born in refugee hosting countries and four million born inside Syria. That makes, since 2011, five million children whose entire life has been war. Nothing but war.
And some of these children are even worse off than others. Let me draw particular attention to the thousands of children born out of families allegedly associated with extremist armed groups, such as ISIS. In Al Hole camp alone, we estimate that close to 3,000 children of foreign nationality are living in extremely dire conditions. There are many more children of Syrian and Iraqi parents, unfortunately with the same ‘ISIS’ label. Many of them younger than 6 years old.
The message that they are not wanted is growing stronger. They are not wanted in the camp. They are often not wanted in their countries of origin, still waiting for third countries to come forward and offer resettlement.
These are children, not terrorists. These are children entitled to a childhood, deserving a fair chance in life. All children impacted by the war in Syria continue to matter for UNICEF. We will continue relentlessly providing support inside Syria and in refugee hosting countries.
However, we cannot do it alone – let me therefore conclude with four clear asks:
First ask on behalf of Syrian children: the war urgently needs a peaceful settlement. We cannot continue justifying the daily loss of lives of innocent children. We call once again calling upon all parties, anyone with influence over them and the UN Special Envoy for Syria to make peace happen. Not tomorrow, now.
My second ask is for children born to families allegedly associated with extremist fighters. For us at UNICEF, these are children and they deserve a fair chance in life. UNICEF asks the authorities who have these families in camps on their territory to allow unimpeded access to the families of concern and ensure that they receive all the required protection and assistance at screening points before entering the camps. We want special attention to be given to any children under the age of 18, girls and boys.
They should never be separated from their families.
Countries of which foreign children are nationals need to take their responsibility to protect their children and to repatriate them, if this is in the child’s best interest. It is these governments’ primary accountability. UNICEF and our partners stand ready to assist.
My third ask is related to refugee-hosting countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. They need continued international support for these countries, these governments and communities to sustain the generosity they’ve shown for many years. This support needs to include the most vulnerable children of these countries. Assistance cannot be solely based on the child’s status as refugee. We want international assistance to be there for each and every vulnerable child.
And last but not least, we ask the international community that will be coming together from tomorrow onwards in Brussels for a pledging conference to continue supporting our assistance to children inside Syria.
Without that support, principled humanitarian action for children will remain an illusion.
For more information:
+962 797 588 550 email@example.com
Suad Al Marani
+962-79-015-8741 Email: Salmarani@unicef.org