"Don't cry for us Syria".the truth is we shall never leave you!"
Jablah, North Syria
"Don't cry for us Syria" has recently become a motto/logo of sorts for many physically and psychologically brutalized youth around this ancient land. They are the youngsters who represent a new generation of Syrians, many of whom were born in this century. It is into their patriotic hands that the Syria's Torch has been passed.
Amid all the dissension and fear-mongering surrounding refugees in the midst of a bloody civil/proxy war, many of Syria's youth are focused on helping fellow Syrians. As much of the rest of the world seemingly passes its time pontificating and posturing in padded chairs and security councils, volunteers around Syria are risking their lives to help those in dire need and who are attempting to find safety.
Many Syrian youngsters vow never to abandon their country as they work to ease the suffering of others. (Photo: Khaled Younis 7/23/2016)
The war statistics from Syria are fairly well known. As are the dangers of Syria's youth heeding seductive Sirene calls to violence with offers of salaries and various perks and escapes from reality. The conflict here has, according to some NGO estimates, now claimed the lives of nearly half a million Syrians, out of a pre-war population of 22 million. More than 11 percent of the Syrian population is estimated to have been killed or injured. More than five million have fled the country while approximately 8 million are internally displaced. The UN estimates that nearly 12 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, more than six million being children ranging from infants to age 12. These distressing numbers rise every day and have left few Syrian families untouched as they carve a deep psychological scar on the population, none more so than upon the youth.
One consequence from more five years of civil war in their country is the pulling of Syria's youth toward extremist groups due to myriad deprivations and personal traumas, loss of economic and educational opportunities, the destruction of infrastructure and spreading fighting; besieged areas, and much more. Youth unemployment now reaches nearly 90 percent in some areas of the country with no end in sight for this conflict. These factors, more than ideology cause many youth to join extremist groups such that many male adolescents end up joining armed groups for lack of a better option and for some income.
Many Syrian adolescents, who this observer has had the honor to meet, have experienced terrible psychological traumas, like losing family members and other conflict-related tragedies. The widely reported increase in the use of drugs and alcohol among adolescents, as a coping measure in the face of hardship, is a point of concern when it comes to the health of young Syrians. The financial resources of most Syrian families have become so limited, it is to the point that fathers cannot provide for their families and increasingly marry their daughters off prematurely. Where male mobility is hindered by security concerns, females may be the sole family support. Looking for basic necessities such as food, fuel and water, they often end up waiting in line for hours to receive relief assistance.
Fragmentation of family structure, tensions due to the economic situation, contrasting political views, exposure to sectarianism, and tribal conflict often result in a rise of adolescents' insecurity and fear, a wish for rebellion, feelings of hatred, and radical thinking that can have potentially long-lasting results on their future and Syria's. This trend is particularly evident in areas where sectarian and tribal conflicts are widespread.
At the same time, adolescents reveal great determination to improve lives here. Despite fearing for their lives as well as the lives of loved ones, Syria's youth are today exhibiting extraordinary resilience and freely discuss with foreigners, various strategies that would help them and their fellow citizens. Foremost is the need felt by youngsters for the return of security and peace in the country for their parents and the overall community. Paralyzing fear and extreme sadness resulting from the war permeates every discussion with Syria youngsters who see the end of the conflict as the only hope for a better future. One youngster in the Wadi al Nasra (Valley of the Christian) near Homs, explained, "We do not know what is coming. We have a very long, painful road ahead but I know that our involvement change our country's course."
For this observer, some surprising reactions among Syria's youth include a strong rejection of the forces inside and outside of Syria who seek to manipulate religions and sects for political purposes. Student's frankness and detailed knowledge expressed is encouraging given their resistance to confessional political manipulation. It gives one hope for this country's future. Syrian youth generally want no part of turning sects against one another and vow that after this war ends Syria will embrace all her people whether they are believers or not and with a blind eye to what sect or religion someone belongs to. "This is who we are as a people, two medical students explained to this observer, this is our heritage and our values and we shall return to them and hopefully learn from this ugly experience that distorted us and gave the world the wrong impression of who we are."
Syrian adolescents are also calling for more opportunities to actively help their community and the people most severely affected by the situation, through volunteering and joining charities and relief organizations. According to a UNICEF survey of last year, roughly 60 percent of the interviewed adolescents would like to engage in activities, especially in relief work and related trainings (e.g., first aid), and recreational and cultural activities for their countrymen. There is currently a serious shortage of centers available at key locations.
Their strength and resilience comes from the love and support of parents and friends; from the community that shares their fate and the inspiring example of relief workers who devote their time to helping others as well as from within themselves and from their desire for a better future.