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Young Children: The Human Face of the Refugee Crisis


Tuesday 24 October 2017

I have spent my life believing that every child has a basic fundamental right to survival, to a standard of living that meets their physical and mental needs; to education, to rest, recreation and play as outlined in the UNCRC. Yet, in spite of this legally binding international agreement, the rights of millions of children, all over the world, are violated on a daily basis. I am referring to the children, who with their families, flee their homes because of armed conflict, unspeakable atrocities, and/or human rights violations, in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea to undertake lengthy and risky journeys in quest of asylum, legal status, and a better life in Europe. In December 2016, and again, in August, 2017, I had the privilege of undertaking voluntary work with young refugee children and their families on the island of Lesvos, Greece. While there, I maintained a journal to document my experiences, and reflections of working with these children. I seldom need to return to this journal. The children’s stories are etched on my mind, and I suspect, they will be, for the rest of my life.


It is now two years since the image of three year old Aylan Kurdi, from Kobani, in Northern Syria, was beamed across the world for all to see. Do you remember the photo of him lying face down in sea water, near Bodrum, Turkey? He was wearing a bright red t-shirt, dark blue shorts, and matching sneakers. His arms lying lifeless by his sides. Aylan was dead, drowned. Do you know that his mother, and his five year old brother, Ghalib, also drowned, as did twelve other Syrians as they attempted to seek refuge in Greece. Aylan’s father, Abdullah paid €4,000 to smugglers, for his family to get on a 5m-long dinghy from Bodrum to Greece. When the sea became rough, the Turkish smuggler abandoned the dinghy, casting its human cargo adrift. After an hour, the dinghy capsized, but the family clung on. Mr Kurdi tried to hold his wife and two sons with his arm, but one by one, each was washed away by the waves.


I met a ten year old little girl, Samira (not her real name) in August, who described her fear when crossing the ocean with her family following the death of five members of her family, including her grandfather. She recalls the crossing in vivid detail ‘it was night time, dark and very scary. The children were told to be quiet. If you fall, nobody would know, nobody would see you, there were so many people, nobody would see you, you would go down, down, down’. Can you imagine the terror? She is one of 2.3 million Syrian children who have taken the ‘death boats’ to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Having survived these traumatic sea crossings, children must then adjust to life in a refugee camp. They try very hard to get on with living. I see children every day with smiling faces, happily playing ‘house’, dressing their dolls, putting them to bed and singing to them as they play in the refugee camp. Their play may mask the losses they have suffered and continue to bear, but their lifeless eyes tell a different story. Samira tells me she is ‘very sad’. She ‘miss [es] her country. It is very beautiful. I am sad because I cannot go with water and flowers, for grandfather, I cannot give him water and flowers’. There are glimpses here of multiple losses: the loss of five family members, the loss of her beautiful country, and the loss of being unable to engage in the simple act of visiting and placing flowers on a grave.


In December, 2016, it is fifteen year old Rasha, who tells me the circumstances surrounding her arrival in Lesvos. It is Thursday, December 8th, we are sitting on a bench, enjoying the winter sunshine. Somewhere in the camp, music is playing, and it carries on the still December air. A simple question, ‘do you like music Rasha’ prompts her to tell me she ‘loves music’, her mother was a music teacher; she taught ‘piano and violin’. Then four simple words ‘I miss my mother’. In Rasha’s case, she found her mother’s lifeless body and that of her ten year old sister in the ruins of their house which was bombed while she was at school. Rasha, her two year old brother and their father fled, finally arriving in Lesvos, where they are attempting to rebuild their lives. Like so many young refugees, Rasha takes anti-depressants. She is ‘afraid to close my eyes, I see mother in my head’.


Children and their parents speak of their hope for the future. The children long for school. Once they are vaccinated, refugee children aged between 6 and 15 years can attend school in Greece. When asked why they are looking forward to going to school, the children talk about ‘making new friends’, ‘learning new things’ and ‘going to school on the bus’. They also discuss what they would like to do when they leave school. They want to go to university, ‘maybe in become a doctor. I want to save people who are sick’. Another wants to be ‘a police man. I will protect you’, and another, ‘a baker, I love making cakes like my mother’. Somehow, I not surprised that these children want to help other people? Have they been influenced by their experiences? Parents yearn for ‘Athena’ and ‘Allemande’ places they associate with freedom, peace, and a new and better life. Mothers yearn for ‘a house for me, my husband and my children. Just us, nobody else’. These families have lost so much. While they have fled war and strife, the sacrifices have been enormous. Not only have they lost family members, their homes, their jobs, they have lost their identity, and their autonomy. They are refugees. They have had to adjust to communal living, where everything they do happens in in the public eye.


It is easy to forget about three year old Aylan Kurdi, his five year old brother, and his mother. They are simply victims. But the photo of Aylan face down, dead on the edge of the beach, is the human face of what is internationally recognised as the refugee crisis. His lifeless body, lying alone on the beach, is a stark reminder that behind every statistic is a human being, a refugee with an identity. A child with a name, a personality, a past, like Aylan, and Ghalib, and other children, including Samira and Rasha whom I met during my brief time volunteering in a refugee camp. These children have seen more in their short lives, than I will ever see in my life-time. They experience change in almost every aspect of their lives: family structure, schooling, community, friends, culture and the overarching society in which they live. Life as they once knew it, has changed utterly, and forever. Medecins Sans Frontiers (2017) reports that anxiety, depression and aggression are on the rise, with children as young as nine, cutting themselves, attempting suicide and using drugs to cope. Worryingly, two children (aged 10 and 15) whom I met, have attempted suicide. The situation for child refugees is indefensible and unacceptable. It screams injustice, and undermines the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. On a daily basis, children are denied their most fundamental entitlements to survival, health and well-being. Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Special Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in Europe, urges us never to forget that ‘children on the move are first and foremost children, who bear no responsibility for their plight, and have every right to a better life’ (in UNICEF, 2016). 


Click here to read our Children’s Rights in Small Places blog post by Sheila Long.


Dr. Mary Moloney is a researcher, author and lecturer in Early   Childhood Education and Care at Mary Immaculate College,   Limerick. She also owned, managed and worked directly with   children  in her own early years setting for many years. She is   passionate about young children's early education and care, as well as   the professional identity, and well-being of all staff working with, and   interested in working with young children. Mary is also interested in   international perspectives on early childhood education and her work   has been influenced by visits to a broad range of countries including Slovenia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy, and more recently by her work as a volunteer with refugee children in Greece.

2 comments Comments

2 Responses

  1. Lilian Joyce says:

    A beautifully written account of the tragic lives of some of the world’s precious children … makes me feel very sad, angry and inadequate.

  2. Mary Cotter says:

    So touching, so real, so sad.

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