When we ask refugees why they fled their country, the majority of people tell us that they left because they feared for the safety of their children. We heard harrowing stories of forced marriages, abductions, near-misses with snipers’ bullets, and spoke to a mother who lost twin one-year-olds in a bombing. Another mother asked her husband to leave before the rest of the family with their 6-year-old son, because she was so afraid for his safety. They’ve now been separated for 10 months. When they talk on the phone she says her son is always crying and asking when she is coming to join them.
We met an Afghani family who have moved several times in search of safety. In Afghanistan, the father was arrested and whipped by the Taliban. They moved to Pakistan, where they thought it would be safer. For a while, it was. But one day the three girls were traveling home from school, and a bomb went off in the city. Their mother kept them from school because she was afraid for them. Two weeks later her worst fears were realized when the girls’ school was bombed. It was then that they decided they had to try and leave.
In every camp we visited in Greece, smiling children welcomed us with hugs and kisses. They wanted to play, show us their toys or be picked up. As we were leaving one camp a girl chased after me to present me with a flower. Many of them are young, and don’t fully grasp the situation they’re in. But their parents do.
We spoke to many grim-faced parents who told us of their distress in not being able to properly care for their children, particularly when they’re sick.
“My child is sick and I don’t know how to get him medicine,” one man told us, while his young son wailed in misery. We also met Sana, a 7-year-old Yazidi girl who never stops smiling. You wouldn’t know that two weeks earlier she was badly burned when a pot of tea tipped over, and that she still has a nasty wound requiring treatment.
Pregnant women are also faced with the daunting task of caring for newborn babies in the camps. Hospitals will admit refugee women to have their babies, but if mother and child are healthy, they are quickly discharged and must return to the camp.
“I don’t want my baby to be born in the camp,” a 21-year-old Afghani woman tells us, explaining that the thought of bringing a newborn baby into this situation weighs heavily on her.
A refugee camp is no place for a child to grow up. In addition to inadequate food, shelter and medical services, there are few organized activities, and parents worry about a lost generation of children unable to get a proper education. A 16-year-old girl tells us that she’d like to be a doctor when she’s older. In Afghanistan, her brother and sister got sick with a fever and died, and she would like to be a doctor so she can save children like them.
Some refugees are trying to fill this education gap themselves. We met Sonia, who fled Afghanistan with her husband and 8-month-old son and is now living in a refugee camp in Greece. Sonia started a school in the camp to teach English to children and interested women. She has around 50 students, and is assisted by a 17-year-old girl who teaches the children some math.
In Lebanon, ADRA’s LEARN program allows Syrian refugee children to resume their education and integrate into the local school system. It also offers psychosocial activities to children suffering from trauma, and hosts events to bring together host and refugee communities.
But the children we’ve told you about so far are in many ways the lucky ones, the ones who still have someone to care for them.
In 2015, over 95,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in Europe. According to UNICEF, more than 9 out of 10 refugee and migrant children arriving in Europe this year through Italy are unaccompanied, with over 7000 making the crossing from North Africa in the first five months of 2016.
Of even greater concern, at least 10,000 of these unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared since arriving in Europe, according to the EU’s criminal intelligence agency. It is thought that some of these may have been reunited with relatives and the system has simply lost track of them, but there are grave fears that many have fallen into the hands of traffickers and are being criminally exploited.
We’ll leave you with the words of Said, a 14-year-old refugee from Syria.
“Children shouldn’t be victims. Children shouldn’t watch how people drown as they couldn’t get in the boat. They shouldn’t walk for days, not being showered. They shouldn’t be hungry and wear just one pair of shoes and one garment all the time. I dream of my house where I can sleep in my bed and attend school.”