Crisis in Syria
It can be hard to comprehend the sheer scale of devastation that has been dealt to Syria and its people since war broke out in 2011.Parties to the conflict have routinely violated international humanitarian law, deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. Across Syria, innocents have suffered attacks from artillery, warplanes, suicide bombs, and even chemical weapons.
The cost to human life has been truly terrible. Since the conflict began, hundreds of thousands have been killed and each month some 30,000 people suffer from conflict-conflict related trauma, 30 percent of who go on to develop permanent disabilities. Tens of thousands have disappeared at the hands of the government and armed groups, while untold numbers have been subjected to torture and other forms of gross mistreatment. Although their area of control is rapidly shrinking, public beheadings, mutilation, forced recruitment of child soldiers, and the sexual enslavement of women and girls is commonplace in territory held by the so-called Islamic State. Amidst such brutality, the levels of mental trauma have reached epidemic proportions. Children are among the most severely affected, with a quarter at risk of developing serious mental health disorders. Amidst the terror and violence, over half of Syria’s population has been forced to leave their homes; 6.3 million have been internally displaced and a further 5 million have fleed the country entirely. Those remaining inside the Syria, displaced or otherwise, are suffering from the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. An astounding 13.5 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and are unable to securely access basic goods and services like food, clean water, shelter, healthcare, sanitation, and education.
The struggle to make a living
Even in the heart of this most dreadful of conflicts, the people of Syria are trying to see out each day with dignity. The sobering reality is that after 6 years, life must go on despite the ever-present threat posed by war. Syrians wake each morning contemplating how to make a living; earn money; buy food, water, and medicine; and send their children to school. Humanitarian assistance is necessary to save lives in the present, but Syrians want more than simply to survive. Like anyone, they want security and a future for themselves and their loved ones. For this, livelihoods and education are every bit as vital as medicine or food–perhaps even more important in the long term.
69 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty on less than US$2 a day, of which 35 percent live in abject poverty and are unable to afford their basic human needs
Of course, obtaining sustainable livelihoods and education in such an unstable setting as Syria is exceptionally challenging. The conflict has heavily damaged the country’s economic infrastructure, collapsed entire industries, disrupted markets, devastated jobs, and triggered currency depreciation. According to the World Bank, the cumulative loss to Syria’s gross domestic product since 2011 is a staggering US$226 billion. An estimated 2.7 million people have lost their jobs as a direct cause of the conflict, with the missing income affecting the lives of some 13.8 million dependents. Today, over half of those inside Syria are unemployed and an estimated 69 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty on less than US$2 a day, of which 35 percent live in abject poverty and are unable to afford their basic human needs. For young people in Syria the impact is disproportionately severe, and unemployment rates among the youth are near 80 percent, a figure that is significantly higher among young women.
Difficulties earning an education
The lack of livelihood opportunities has had a profoundly negative impact on education in the country. With poverty running rampant, families have no choice but to pull children and adolescents from school in order to put them to work. Currently, 1.75 million children and youth are of school and an additional 1.3 million are at serious risk of dropping out.
The damage caused by the war means that education is limited even for families with the means to keep their children in school. A third of the schools inside Syria are damaged, destroyed, or otherwise inaccessible, and many that are still standing are hardly fit for purpose. There is a serious shortage of learning materials and qualified teachers, and the structures themselves have poor sanitation and hygiene. In general, schools and learning environments are unsafe, overcrowded, and under-resourced.
Negative coping mechanisms
Out of school and with little means to make a sustainable living, Syria’s youth are becoming victims to negative coping mechanisms in disturbingly high numbers. Many of the country’s children are now working under unbearable conditions in economic activities that are mentally, physically, or socially dangerous. Equally concerning is the prevalence of scavenging, begging, and even theft among children in Syria. There is also a concerning increase in early marriage as, unable to provide, families are pressured into marrying off their underage daughters. Too young to consent, forcibly separated from their families, and frequently placed in insecure environments, these young girls are at an increased risk of exploitation.
In families where low monthly incomes—sometimes less than US$100 per month—must cover scarce and expensive goods, the monthly salary of up to US$400 for a child who joins an armed group is hard to resist
Things are scarcely better for adolescents, among whom antisocial behaviours such as begging and theft are equally as common. Just like girls, young women are also at risk of forced marriages that can all too often resemble slavery or slavery-like conditions. For adolescent males and even some boys, the only source of reliable income can be the armed groups that are active across Syria. In families where low monthly incomes—sometimes less than US$100 per month—must cover scarce and expensive goods, the monthly salary of up to US$400 for a child who joins an armed group is hard to resist. As multiple studies have highlighted, young men are more likely to turn to armed groups out of economic desperation and a lack of livelihood opportunities than they are for reasons of ideology or conviction.
A lost generation
Without opportunities to either make a safe living or continue their education, young people in Syria lack a sense of agency, feeling as though they have no purpose, control, or significance. Without immediate and effective action, the UN, international aid agencies, and independent experts all warn of the emergence a “lost generation,” which would be disastrous for Syria. Aside from the immediate harm, there are long-term ramifications that can trap the country in a negative cycle of underdevelopment, poverty, and even violence.
While it may be a cliché, youth truly are the future. If traumatized and lacking in education, those who inherit Syria will be poorly equipped to deal with the significant challenges involved with rebuilding a country. Conversely, however, an empowered and skilled youth can be a powerful driver of change. In the words of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA):
“Provided with the right opportunities, adolescents and youth have the intent and energy to contribute positively to their communities, participate in decision making, promote social cohesion and reframe their reality, despite their own difficult situation”
Youth and the future of Syria
Given the right means to make the most of their potential, youth can be a beacon of hope for post-conflict Syria. Instead of losing a generation, it’s imperative that we work to foster a talented, skilled, and inspired generation. Providing opportunities for livelihoods and education should therefore be a priority for those seeking to assist the country. Educated young people that can make a safe and secure living will have the means to avoid negative coping strategies today and will be the foundation for a brighter future tomorrow.
There are many livelihood and education projects inside Syria working in concert with emergency relief to yield positive results. In 2016, for example, the World Food Programme (WFP) launched several such operations. It has provided 1,000 vulnerable families in Dara’a with kitchen garden kits and training to increase household-level production. Inaddition to improving food security and nutrition, this initiative also offers a source of income as families can sell their surplus to local markets. Meanwhile in Aleppo, the WFP has trained more than 300 at-risk women in sewing, tailoring, and business skills, offering them sources of income to reduce their vulnerability. The IECD is doing its part by giving 900 Syrians vocational education in employable skills such as mechanics, electronics, and construction. Across the country, both local and international organizations are designing projects to give independence and security to young people; the initiatives range from further education, hairdressing, and dressmaking to butchering, livestock and crop farming, and catering.
Roia’s Maharat ICT Academy
At Roia, we design projects that create sustainable opportunities for young people to learn, gain skills, and find work. We established the Maharat ICT Academy in Eastern Ghouta, which gives vulnerable young men and women a vocational education in competitive ICT skills, English language, and entrepreneurship. Our students learn such competencies as web design, programming languages, and database management in a safe space and are given the tools to fulfil their potential. The Maharat Academy combines education and livelihoods by not only teaching students, but also providing them with comprehensive support to help them find work, whether it be with local and regional business, INGOs active in the region, or even local councils. The Academy trains students to access the global freelance market and offer their talents to clients all around the world. With computers and Internet access provided, our students can connect to a global market beyond the violence and disruption of the conflict. By building websites and making apps for clients, they develop skills and earn income to create a better life for themselves and their communities.
Providing these opportunities in an active war zone is not easy. As long as there is conflict in the country, Syria’s economy will never be able to fully support the needs of its people, and the local, regional, and international agencies that are working to assist the population will face an uphill struggle. The conflict in the country is a political crisis with political, not humanitarian, solutions. Nevertheless, as the people of Syria and those around the world wait on this solution, providing education and livelihood opportunities is crucial to reducing suffering and maximizing the prospects for Syria’s eventual reconstruction efforts.