Brussels Syria conference: Why this war is personal

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Mohammed, 16, from Golan Heights in Syria, dreams of being a journalist. [World Vision]

Despite what Syria has become, most Syrian refugees speak longingly about returning to Syria and yearn for the types of job – doctors, engineers and teachers – that will be needed to rebuild their country, writes Christine Latif.

Christine Latif is response manager for Northern Syria and Turkey at World Vision, a Christian relief and development organisation.

The European Union will host, in Brussels, on 4-5 April, the “Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region”, co-chaired with the United Nations and with the governments of Germany, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar and the United Kingdom.

“I’m not afraid for my future, but for the future of Syria.” Those are the stark words of 17-year-old Mohammed, one of 100 children in Syria and its neighbouring countries asked about their fears and dreams for the future. This recent survey by World Vision, marking six years since the start of the crisis, shows how each child’s experience of bombing, sniper fire and violence has shaped their view of the world – and surely their view of its leaders too, locked in apparent paralysis as the elusive quest for peace continues.

Now, three weeks into the seventh year of the conflict in Syria, leaders are gathering in Brussels for discussions on the crisis. The Brussels Conference on Supporting the future of Syria and the region will bring together ministerial representatives from 70 delegations including the EU, region and wider international community to address the situation in Syria and the impact of the crisis in the region, including current humanitarian needs, funding and future reconstruction.

Our work inside Syria, and in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq which are collectively home to almost five million Syrian refugees, means we hear heartbreaking stories on a daily basis. In our North Syria and Turkey office, where I’m based, the suffering of Syrians is felt all too acutely by our staff. Many of my colleagues are Syrian, and the pain of this intractable conflict is felt here too. Everyone has friends and relatives across the border. One staff member told me how his sister-in-law was killed after trying to fight off people trying to recruit her 14-year-old son as a soldier.

Many inside Syria feel the outside world has forgotten them; that world leaders and their electorates don’t care about incessant violations of international humanitarian law, never-ending cycles of misery as families are displaced to ever more dangerous areas, and schools being blown up with children inside them. The forthcoming Brussels Conference is a yet another chance to prove that parts of the world do care – but, to do that, there must be concrete outcomes for children which make a tangible difference.

The first of these is protection. Last year recorded the largest number of grave violations against children since the start of the conflict. Inside Syria, recruitment of children by armed groups is reported in 90% of sub-districts with children as young as 7 being recruited. Leaders meeting in Brussels this week must do all they can to ensure the protection of civilians, especially the most vulnerable children, and all parties to the conflict must be held to account on international humanitarian law. Violations, including the direct targeting of civil infrastructure and civilian populations must cease immediately.

Another significant issue is humanitarian access. Aid agencies are experienced at saving lives – but we can only do it if we can reach those people. 4.9 million people in Syria are living in hard-to-reach or besieged areas. Last year was the most violent year yet in Syria and, sadly, there were times when aid agencies had to suspend their work because the environment was just too dangerous. My staff often put their lives on the line every time they go out to help – especially when aid convoys have been targeted.

Access is so vital because, in some parts of Syria 90% of the assistance is provided by NGOs. When funding cuts are made or we can’t reach people, it means those services end. Funding is needed because we provide those services for free; people in Syria just don’t have the money to pay for hospitals. As I recently told the European Parliament, we also need stable and predictable funding. The EU has helped to make that happen through ECHO but, as the crisis continues, we need funding which is flexible and reflects the reality of the crisis. In a single day, I can receive several phone calls that change how we need to do our work on the ground. We need funding which allows us to adapt without wrangling with red tape.

It is, admittedly, difficult to show the world the true horror of what many people are going through. In eastern Aleppo last autumn, for example, the images we received from staff of dead children being pulled from the rubble were too horrific to be broadcast. But we see it all. Every single day.

Despite what Syria has become, when you meet Syrian refugees most will speak longingly about returning to Syria and yearn for the types of job – doctors, engineers and teachers – that will be needed to rebuild their country. 17-year-old Mohammed, who fears for the future of his country, also dreams of one day studying at Oxford University. Despite the devastating toll the Syria Crisis has taken on millions of children, it’s clear that their hopes and dreams remain intact and are shining as strongly as ever.

We have seen six years of ineffective global action on Syria. As we approach another meeting of world leaders and another chance to reach a consensus on the way forward, we must see concrete steps to protect children so that these dreams can become a reality. Leaders in Brussels this week must do whatever it takes to agree on a lasting political solution to the conflict, as well as solutions for the millions of Syrians forced from their homes and help for the communities where they now live.