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Field Diary: Witnessing pockets of hope and stories of resilience in the midst of turmoil

By Mark Choonoo
UNICEF Emergency Specialist

I just returned from Homs where I stayed for one month as part of a mission to assess the humanitarian situation in the governorate. We have also worked to review humanitarian programmes and to strengthen and build our relationship with local partners for expanding our work. 

Almost one in three persons in Homs is a displaced person, our partners on the ground tell us, and according to them, two third of the displaced population are children. Explosions, the sound of shells landing and crack of gunfire are still part of the day-to-day life here.

Less than a kilometre from the hotel where I was staying, fighting raged on with ferocity that shakes the city. Even after 20 years of doing this type of work in some very dangerous areas of the world, every explosion still made me worry. Amidst this, we as a humanitarian team had to keep focused on how to improve the lives of those affected by this conflict.

Children engage in recreational activities in Homs at one of the classes supported by UNICEF in Homs and implemented by the NGO JRS. © UNICEF Syria/2013/Moaz

I walked around to see how children in Homs are living. I went to a convent that works with children, situated at the end of the line of fully standing buildings before the destruction and rubble begins. I was amazed that the children of the area fearlessly made their way to these rooms to read their book, listen to teachers, draw their pictures and play their games. The drawings on the walls spoke of smiling faces, waving hands, laughter and messages of the need to forgive. Total contrast to the rubble outside that represents battered lives.

I also went to what is called the “towers” which are unfinished blocks of apartments turned into collective shelters for displaced families. There, I met a 14-year-old girl and her younger brother who have literally opened a classroom on their own for themselves and their peers. The two siblings, whose schooling was disrupted because of the conflict, have transformed their shelter into a learning space where children come to study text books together.

The common message I got from parents and all education practitioners I met was the need to make sure that children can complete their school calendar. A significant part of the education infrastructure in Homs has been severely affected by the conflict, with many schools either damaged by the fighting, or turned into shelters for displaced families.

Naturally, this is putting enormous pressure on classrooms that are still functioning and on teachers who are challenged to do more than their best to teach double and triple the size of their normal class. UNICEF is working with partners to provide remedial learning programmes to help more children continue their education. About 6,500 children benefited from this programme in Homs and we are working to reach more children in the coming weeks.  We will also soon be providing formal schools in Homs with essential school supplies to help increase access and improve the quality of education.

Here, I saw and heard about much suffering and desperation, but I also encountered amazing stories of people who in the midst of all this, are doing everything they can to cope with their circumstances and create pockets of hope in a world of chaos.

Our partner in Talbiseh town, in Homs Governorate, told us how women are coping with the shortage of clothes amidst this harsh winter by turning blankets donated to them into clothes. We are providing winter supplies and non-food items for affected families, including packages of children’s winter clothes, but unfortunately because of the ever growing scale of the crisis, there’s not enough to go around for every child in need to receive the full package.

Our partner in Talbiseh described that they will unpack the content of the boxes of children’s clothes that they receive from UNICEF and distribute to mothers and children by the piece, according to the need. “So for instance, we will give shoes to a child who needs them and give the Pyjama to another child who has shoes but not clothes.” our partner mentioned.

During the last two weeks, UNICEF relief supplies which include family hygiene kits, blankets, quilts, food kits and high energy biscuits for children reached more than 67,200 people in Homs.

I cannot imagine the fear a little child experiences with each shattering that rocks the city. Most children I saw were showing some signs of distress. This is why it is extremely important that we set up Child Friendly Spaces and provide psychosocial support for as many children as possible.

We met with some local organisations working on psychosocial projects to discuss how we can work together. They are groups of energetic young people who have never imagined that one day they would need to do such work in their own city. Given my experience as a counsellor, I was asked to guide them in their work and we decided to set up a focus group of practitioners that will address the scale and magnitude of assistance that children need.

With the appropriate resources, and strong partnerships, there is so much more that we can do. I realize more and more the fear that has crept into communities, into people’s kitchens, into children’s lives. Our work in the area of psychosocial support will be extremely important to make sure that children can regain connection with their childhood, and grow up to become healthy and strong pillars in their society.

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Learn more about the crisis in Syria.

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