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A refugee crisis: Kids caught in the line of fire

The images of victims of a chemical attack in Syria are haunting--"gut-wrenching," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week. But the nearly th
Syrian refugees - Emma Margolin - 08/29/2013
A Syrian Kurdish family sits in front of their tent in a refugee camp in Iraq on August, 24 2013

The images of victims of a chemical attack in Syria are haunting--"gut-wrenching," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week. But the nearly three-year-old Syrian civil war has left more than 100,000 dead and millions more scattered in refugee camps or elsewhere across their borders.

In its failed attempt to argue for British intervention, Prime Minister David Cameron's government plainly laid out a legal justification for military action:  “humanitarian intervention.”

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has so far registered more than two million Syrians who have fled their homeland to neighboring countries. Half of those refugees are children.

“What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents,” said António Guterres, high commissioner of the UNHCR, last week when the United Nations announced the grim milestone of one million children forced out of Syria. Guterres warned in an interview with NBC News that the embattled country was facing a “lost generation.”

Many have sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, but a growing number are also arriving in North Africa and Europe, where Guterres has urged for a more generous approach to Syrians seeking asylum. Additionally, millions more have been internally displaced within Syria, where they remain vulnerable to escalating violence.

“There are 3.1 million children who are in need of direct humanitarian assistance,” said Juliette Touma, regional spokesperson for UNICEF. “They are caught in the line of fire where heavy violence is taking place.”

In the last year, UNICEF has seen a tenfold increase in the number child refugees, said Touma, indicating a spike in the level of violence. Often, children are separated from their families and arrive in host communities or refugee camps with “stories of horror,” she said.

“They’ve gone through experiences that no one should go through, let alone a child,” said Touma. It’s not uncommon for children to be in a cycle of “continuous displacement,” she said, where they’re forced to move as often as once a month.

“For any child to move, the child feels uncomfortable--he misses his bedroom, he misses his neighbors, he misses a normal sense of stability,” said Touma. “I can only imagine the consequence when violence has taken place. Sometimes we meet children at the border who come with nothing. They’re forced to walk for miles.”

UNICEF estimates a quarter million Syrian children are living in Jordan, home to the Za’atari refugee camp, the world’s second-largest. NBC’s Ann Curry recently paid a visit to that camp where she met 7-year-old Jalal, whose arm was injured in an attack that killed five children in his hometown of Da’ara, Syria.

“They destroyed our home,” Jalal told Curry.

While these families no longer face immediate danger, their lives are not easy. An April UNHCR report found that health and education services for Syrian refugees were becoming increasingly overstretched.

The U.S. government has given UNICEF $56 million since the beginning of 2013, but the organization has appealed for $400 million more, Touma said. This funding would go toward water sanitation, hygiene, education, child protection, and social support, which they view as essential to the healing process.

“We work with children through recreation activities to make them reconnect with childhood,” said Touma. “When they first come, they draw with a lot of black, and red colors. They draw things that children should not draw--like tanks, war planes and rockets.”

“But as we continue to work them, they become a bit happier,” she said. “They draw flowers and houses. The colors change.”