“Are we going to die today?”
The questions Syrian children ask their parents
Forcibly uprooted from their homes, millions of Syrian children are growing up knowing nothing but war and terror. Though many families remain trapped in Syria’s war zones, others have been forced to make tough decisions to save themselves and their children.
Nearly one million refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other nations experiencing conflict have risked the sea journey to Europe this year, with 800,000 coming through the Greek islands. More than half of those have landed on Lesbos, the main gateway to Europe.
It’s not an easy task to console children who have had to say goodbye to their homes, witness violence and become hardened by loss, especially when parents themselves have lost control of their own lives. While working with the International Rescue Committee’s emergency team in Greece last month, I spoke with six families on Lesbos about the difficult questions their children ask about their escape to Europe.
Mama, are we going to die today?
From: Aleppo, Syria
Mubarak and her family nearly died making the treacherous voyage on a rubber raft from Turkey to Lesbos. She remembers every terrifying detail as the tides took control of their flimsy craft.
“First, there was a little fear, but my mama told me we’re going on the boat for a better life,” she says. “I can’t swim, but I was learning at my grandparents’ house. The waves were too big and then the boat was full of water. We lost everything — our money and clothes. I asked God to let me die on land and not in the sea. I asked my mama if we are going to die today.”
Mubarak’s mother, enveloped in grief, is stung by her daughter’s words.
“What mother wants her child to speak like this?” she asks. “But, what else can we do? They’ve seen the reality of war and it’s difficult to hide it…the children were aware of everything that was going on. We tell our children we’re going to a place where there is no sound of war, no need to be afraid of death. They will have a new home and a good life.”
Will the helicopters hurt us?
From: Aleppo, Syria
As Yusef squeezed out from the crush of passengers on a tiny boat that had just landed on Lesbos, he froze in fear as a whirring helicopter hovered over the rocky beach. He clutched his sister Rama’s hand and pointed skyward: “Will it hurt us?”
Yusef has found it hard to cope with the sound of planes and helicopters, explains 20-year-old Rama. Back in Syria, her little brother witnessed a constant rain of rockets over Aleppo.
“The war has absolutely changed Yusef. My little brother’s childhood has been replaced with destruction,” she says. “He knows too well the sounds of a bomb and the voices of the Free Syrian Army and Daesh (the Arabic name for ISIS). He can also tell who is who by how they look.”
“He just wants to run away from Syria — he wants to be able to play in the streets again with friends,” she continues. “We say they won’t hurt us in Germany. Nothing will hurt us there. He can finally play outside with kind, friendly people. His response: ‘Yes, I’m ready, let’s go.’”
Where is my grandfather?
From: Damascus, Syria
Abdullah tried to wait out the war with his wife and their two young boys — until their home in Damascus was turned to dust by bombs. He packed a bag with the barest essentials and forced a smile to reassure his family, knowing too well they could die during their escape.
The family trekked from Damascus to Turkey in ten days, sleeping in the forest to evade the police. Adnan and his little brother weren’t afraid. Their father told them it was part of an adventure to visit their grandfather, who had resettled in Germany a few months earlier.
“My son used to sleep at his grandparents’ house and he’s not able to do that anymore. Every day he asks when he will see his grandfather — why we live so far away from him,” he says.
In Turkey, Abdullah managed to find a dinghy to take the family to Greece, but it started to sink halfway into the voyage. He prepared the boys for the plunge into the open sea.
“I told them we are going swimming,” he says. “They love to swim. I held them both and we swam for almost a mile to get to the shore. I saw death for me and my children. But my sons could only think of their grandfather in Germany.”
Why do I have to leave my home?
From: Al-Hasakah, Syria
Fatima* could never find the right words to explain to her children why they had to leave their home for Germany. Her three children didn’t ask much about the war or the journey to Europe. She tried to shield them from the worst, even when a rocket struck her house early one morning. Luckily the children were not there, but how could she explain to them why they couldn’t go home, and why they were being smuggled into Turkey?
“We left because of the war and death, but I didn’t want to say that to my children,” she explains. “So, I told them this was just temporary. But Saif wouldn’t stop asking. He still asks why we’re here in the camp, why we can’t go back to Syria.”
“Children do not deserve to live a life full of fear. Saif started to become quiet and reserved when he stopped going to school, stopped playing with his friends outside. Thank God he didn’t see our house destroyed. Saif doesn’t know why people are fighting…and I didn’t want him to find out.”
When can we go home?
Name: Laylan* and her brother Ahmed*
Ages: 5 and 4
From: Aleppo, Syria
These cheerful siblings were too young during the early years of the war to harbor bad memories, but their mother knew from the beginning that they would be robbed of the joys of a typical childhood. Now Hayat* worries how she will help her children lead normal lives without a home.
The family left Aleppo to escape the shellings, frequent kidnappings and arbitrary arrests that plagued the city.
“We took a bus to Turkey and in the middle were forced to get off and walk to the border,” Hayat recalls. “There were crowds of people and the sun had just set. My daughter saw a line of police officers at the border and she put both hands on her chest and started to have a panic attack. She kept screaming ‘I want to go home, I want to go home.’ I haven’t been able to tell her we won’t be able to go back home. We’ve been telling them we are going on a trip and at the end of this trip, you will have a school to go to and can play outside with friends.”
When will we go back to school?
From: Idlib, Syria
Yaza has been out of school for nearly four years. His family had fled their home in the countryside near Idlib to a makeshift camp in Lebanon. Living conditions were difficult and his parents struggled to find work. So at the tender age of 12, Yaza decided to provide for his family by working for a tailor in Beirut.
“I would rather go to school,” he says, now 15. “I always asked my parents, ‘when we can finally go back to school?’ I miss my friends, my classes. English was my favorite and I could speak quite well, but I’ve forgotten. I know the reason for this war. I know why we have to leave our country. I just don’t know when we will go back. My mother tried to help us forget about the bullets and bombings. She told us not to be afraid, that we’re together and have each other.”
“I hope we get treatment in Germany for my brother who has asthma and two holes in his heart. Germany is new so I don’t know what it will be like. I just hope I’m treated like a human being. I do know it will be a hundred times better than Lebanon; a thousand times safer than Syria. We no longer need to be afraid.”
*Some names were changed and last names omitted to protect the privacy of the families.
Story by Kulsoom Rizvi
Refugee Crisis: How the IRC helps
The International Rescue Committee is providing relief to millions of uprooted people inside Syria; in neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan; in Afghanistan; on the shores of Greece; and in our 26 resettlement offices in the United States. Help us reach our goal. Donate now. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.
Nearly 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes by war, conflict and persecution — more lives uprooted than at any time since World War II. Produced by the International Rescue Committee, “Uprooted” keeps the spotlight on the individual human beings behind the tragic numbers in this global refugee crisis.