By Georgia Marks
On 21 March, Gareth Owen, the Humanitarian Director for Save the Children, came to the Temple of Peace to give a presentation on the impact of the war on the children of Syria. The Chief Executive of the WCIA, Martin Pollard, introduced the event by expressing that the war in Syria is a pressing issue. He then went on to establish Owen’s background in civil engineering and his pivotal role in Save the Children and has been awarded an OBE in 2013 for his work in emergency crisis.
Owen started his presentation by showing us a video about the children of Syria, with statistics of the injuries they have suffered and the effect that the war has had on their mental health. The information in the video was horrifying. Last week marked the sixth anniversary of the Syria conflict, however Owen reiterated that the theme for the presentation was hope. I think this is a really refreshing stance to have because with the all of the horrific news that we hear about the conflict, it is easy to fall into a state of negativity. Also, a sense of positivity will create a more open space for change within Syria.
Owen then described Save the Children’s newest report, ‘Invisible Wounds’, which depicted the impacts that the war in Syria has had on four hundred and fifty Syrian children interviewed and showed the devastating psychological effects of the six year conflict. The study found that the majority of the children interviewed were suffering from toxic stress which can result in the increase of heart disease, drug abuse and mental health issues. The speaker stressed that the most concerning element of this is that the issues in childhood manifest in adulthood, so the effects of the war will resonate forever.
The report found that 71% of the children interviewed suffered from bedwetting, which is a sign of toxic stress. Also, 80% have noticed that they are more aggressive than before the war, and 50% of the older children interviewed have turned to drugs. The children interviewed emphasized that they will never feel safe at school. The statistics given in the presentation have made it clear that the war in Syria is affecting the children in a detrimental way, and I share the opinion of many when I say that we cannot let it continue. This brings me back to the main theme of Owen’s presentation: although the situation in Syria is horrific, there is still time to act, many children can heal, there is still hope.
The next section of Owen’s presentation asked how Syria got to into this situation. He established a brief history of the situation in Syria; the 15 March 2011 marked the start of the Arab Spring which began in Syria, and the world was terrified that it would spread. Last year marked the record amount of deaths for children. Before the Arab Spring, the population of Syria was around two million, but now half of that number have fled to neighbouring countries and Europe. The speaker went on to establish that those who have stayed behind, including children, are forced to fight work and into young marriage. The situation in Syria was described as a medieval siege like position, using starvation as a way to control the population. There have been 4000 recorded attack on schools, there is a critical need for water and healthcare, and many are living in poverty. This once again reinforces the need to intervene. A member of the audience asked what action was being taken to help children who have been forced to be in the army. The speaker responded by saying that Save the Children will soon be 100 years old. He expressed that the organisation works with factions to stop using children, but Syria is a nation of impunity, with inability to protect the children. Owen emphasized the problem of people forgetting that the United Nations was created to eradicate war. Therefore, Save the Children have taken it upon themselves, as they reach 100, to try and mobilise and change the picture. Another member of the audience questioned how Save the Children prioritises their aid given their scarce resources. The speaker responded by stating that the organisation makes practical choices but they are difficult choices to make. Save the Children always seek to help those who are hardest to reach but that is not always possible; the organisation tries to be impartial and ethical but they cannot always succeed.
Owen then talked about one of his visits to Syria in March 2013. He expressed that he had to have an alias when he visited, which shows how dangerous the country is. The speaker stated that Syria is the most frightening war that he has ever experienced. He then went on to say that the world does not care enough because otherwise we would not allow this to happen. I think that in a sense this is true; there is a feeling of complacency in society right now, if the crisis has not majorly reached our country then we do not feel the urge to act. This is a major problem because we will only make an impact once it is too late. A member of the audience asked how Owen thinks Britain have handled the situation. The speaker replied that we have utterly failed and that the United Nations are not acting to its potential. However, Owen stressed that it is always going to be difficult, but it doesn’t mean that the United Nations isn’t trying.
Owen then went on to provide examples of the positive progress that has been made in Syria, schools have been built and aid had been given, along with psycho-social support. The speaker emphasized that the conflict has meant that the Syrian civil society has to fend for itself to create organisations and work with other countries. This is one of the only positive aspects of the war, and reiterates the theme of the talk of the hopeful attitudes that we should have towards the conflict.
The speaker then went on to discuss the countries that are taking in millions of refugees such as Lebanon and Jordan, and questioned whether Britain is pulling their weight. I think this is a valid question, in comparison with other countries Britain is not taking in that many refugees. This reinforces the point established above that we appear to not care too much unless we are directly affected. In this sense Britain most definitely could make more effort in contributing to help the people of Syria. A member of the audience expressed their concerns with the plight of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and asked whether they are able to take in so many. Owen expressed that politicians respond to the electorate, so in that sense it is in the public’s hands. The speaker then appealed to the young generation, asking how we want our future to be. We need to do something; we need political activism that doesn’t necessarily exist today. We need passion. There are no humanitarian solutions, only political.
The situation in Syria is so horrific, that the way Save the Children tell the children’s stories is so important. A member of the audience asked about the misleading information surrounding Syria and what information can we trust? Owen replied by saying that we live in a culture where facts are disputable, and there is a problem with propaganda and verifying information as a lot of information is propaganda. There is also the issue that the narrative of war is always written by the victor. However, the testimonies of the children cannot be disputed as that is their reality, and it reminds the world that we need to find a solution. The key element to the children’s stories is that of hope. Owen established that the power of hope lives in the refugees, so it is their job at Save the Children to keep the hope alive and help Syrians on a practical level as well.
Owen then showed us the example of Ahmed and the Exodus film and how Britain helped to get his family over to the UK. I found this story refreshing as it shows Britain’s potential to help the people of Syria, and how our aid can have a positive impact. Another video was then shown, a ‘Don’t Bomb Children’ advert which has been televised quite frequently recently, and depicted a British school child being under attack from terrorist forces and having to flee her country. The main message of the video was that just because it isn’t happening here, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about what is going on in Syria. This video in particular was very powerful in conveying that message. It appears that the shock factor is one of the only ways to get us to respond to the crisis in Syria. This is really disappointing, but at the same time at least we are starting to respond more to the war. The war has spurred responses among well-known figures, Owen exemplified Stephen Hawking’s contribution to Save the Children. Hawking fronted an appeal, giving voices to the children of Syria. I think this is really positive, because if influential figures advocate a more active stance in regards to Syria then hopefully it will encourage others to protest to help Syrian people. The last example Owen depicted was the search and rescue in the Mediterranean, where thousands of refugees drowned attempting to cross the border. The speaker explained that 4700 died in the Mediterranean and 800 of those were children. From all of the examples given, it is clear that we need to take more action to help the people of Syria, as we cannot continue to sit back and let this happen to innocent people.
Owen concluded by talking about the future. There have been talks of safe zones and peace talks which can only be viewed as progress. He went on to express that the price of humanity is whatever it takes to keep the people of Syria alive. According to the speaker, we will be judged harshly in history in terms of how we have helped Syrian people. He ended by asking which side we wanted to be on.
Overall, I found the presentation really insightful and I think it was really effective in motivating the audience. I think we are in a really important period right now which will hopefully influence change in attitudes towards Syria. We need to think positively, but in order for there to be results, we need to take action. There is no doubt that more can be done to help the situation in Syria, and we need to get out of the mind-set that it is someone else’s problem.