FRACTURED
FAMILIES

FRACTURED FAMILIES

Syria’s ongoing conflict, now in its third year, has torn apart countless families. Entire communities have been uprooted, scattering large populations within Syria and driving over 2.2 million people into surrounding countries.

Children have been particularly affected, many of them becoming refugees, some separated from one or both parents and sometimes with no adult caregiver at all.

Team spirit
UNHCR

Abdallah, with the help of a GoPro camera, tells the story of his newly formed football team in Za’atari camp, Jordan.

Missing family members

The scale of the problem was highlighted during focus group discussions and interviews across Jordan and Lebanon. Forty-three of 202 children interviewed said that at least one of their immediate family members was either dead, detained or missing.

Tens of thousands of displaced children in Jordan and Lebanon are growing up without their fathers: as of 30 September 2013, there were 41,962 female-headed households in Jordan, and 36,622 in Lebanon. Not only are fathers absent; many children have no idea where they are.

Missing
UNHCR/E.Dorfman

Rahab and her children in their apartment in Qobayat, Lebanon, stand around an empty chair, cloaked with their father’s robe. He was killed when a shell hit their neighbourhood in Homs, Syria.

Living without both parents

By the end of September 2013, UNHCR had registered 2,440 unaccompanied or separated children in Lebanon and 1,320 in Jordan—more than 3,700 in total.

Unaccompanied children have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so. Separated children have been separated from both parents, or from their previous legal or customary primary caregiver, but not necessarily from other relatives. These may, therefore, include children accompanied by other adult family members.

These numbers do not necessarily reflect the precise extent or complexity of the problem. Elsa Laurin, UNHCR’s Child Protection Coordinator in Lebanon, said that refugee children who flee Syria alone often know where at least one family member is, and how to contact them. Many are quickly reunited or welcomed into the homes of other Syrian refugees.

Interviews with boys and girls in Jordan and Lebanon underline various reasons why children become separated or unaccompanied. Parents may have died or been detained or sent their children alone to seek safety or avoid military conscription.

Parents sometimes send their sons ahead of the family to find work and a place to live. In one case, a ten-year-old boy was sent to Lebanon by his family to see if the situation there was safe.

Khaled

The story of 15-year-old Khaled in Za’atari camp, Jordan, captures not only the pain, pressure and fear that many unaccompanied and separated children feel, but also their resilience in the face of an uncertain future and new responsibilities.

When asked whether he misses his mother, Khaled tugged the brim of his baseball cap low over his face and began to cry. “I miss coming home and finding her there,” he said. "I miss having her around us, to sit with her, to actually get to see her face."

His parents divorced before the conflict began. As fighting escalated, Khaled’s mother fled north to Idlib in 2012, while his father stayed in Daraa. Shortly afterwards, Khaled, his brother and two sisters, and several aunts and cousins escaped to Jordan to join extended family members, while his father stayed behind.

Over the course of five months in Za’atari camp, Khaled and his siblings were abandoned by all of their extended family.

The pressure the teenager feels to protect and provide for his siblings in an unknown country is often overwhelming.

“It was scary,” he said. “We were suddenly all alone and I found myself responsible for my siblings... If anything were to ever happen to them, I could never live with myself.”

Without parents, Khaled has become the family protector, but at a steep price to his own education and future.

He would like to move out of the camp, but would then need to find a job and pay rent for an apartment. He has two enduring goals: to reunite with his mother and to send his siblings to school.

A new home

UN agencies and partners help to reunite unaccompanied children with their families when this is what they want and it is deemed to be in their best interest.1 When families cannot be found or traced, UNHCR and partners help children to find alternative arrangements, such as with another family in the community, and regularly monitor their well-being and living conditions.

In Jordan, during the first six months of 2013, UN agencies and partners identified care arrangements in camps and urban areas for more than 800 unaccompanied and separated children. This involved tracing and reuniting children with family members in Jordan or abroad, identifying safe and appropriate care arrangements with extended family or other members of the community, and assessing existing care arrangements to ensure that they were suitable and safe.

Working with Jordanian and Lebanese authorities, UNHCR and UNICEF are in the process of formalizing alternative care arrangements within the refugee community. Clear criteria will be applied to identify and monitor eligible families.

UNHCR and UNICEF have also been working with the Jordanian Government to develop national procedures and guidelines for alternative care. These will apply to unaccompanied and separated Syrian refugee children.

Far from home
UNHCR/E.Dorfman

Miram, 11, front right, was eating breakfast in her home in Syria when a bomb fell on the kitchen and killed her mother. She was brought to her brother’s family outside of Beirut, where she now lives with her cousins, her brother and his wife.

Hospitality

Hospitality is central to Arab culture. One 14-year-old boy from Aleppo explained that Syrians help each other because “in Syria, there is loyalty between people who know each other.” Even total strangers within the refugee community have been willing to open their homes to unaccompanied children. In Jordan’s Za’atari camp, for instance, 59 families had registered on the International Rescue Committee’s standby list to take unaccompanied children into their care as of July 2013.

Maher

The last time 16-year-old Maher saw his father was nearly two years ago.

Before his family fled the fighting in Syria, he and his father were both detained. Maher was tortured, but released after nine days. His father was not so lucky: he is still missing.

Maher now lives in Zarqa, Jordan, where his mother is the only caregiver for his six siblings ranging in age from four to 18 years old. “I am both mother and father,” she said.

Maher just wants his old life back.

“My first wish would be to go back to Syria and have my father released,” he said. “Then for things to go back to the way they were.”

Until then, he is facing new challenges and building a new life. He is afraid to work—he cannot do so legally and fears arrest—but he must nevertheless help to support his family. He takes on short-term construction jobs whenever he can, but the lingering effects of the torture he underwent in Syria mean he can only work for a few days at a time without feeling pain in his shoulder.

Home alone

One Syrian family typifies the strength and resilience of the refugee community. Fearing for their safety, the parents of Khaled, Reem and Adel sent them alone to Jordan. Khaled, 13, had been involved in street protests and feared repercussions; Reem, as a 15-year-old girl, was vulnerable to sexual violence; and Adel, 16, faced military conscription.

Before they left Syria, their mother made them a tent in which they still live today. For over a year after their arrival, they lived in a community of Syrian refugees near the Syrian border. Though they initially knew no one around them, their neighbours provided a strong support network. Men would work when they could, sharing their food and money within the community, taking particular care of the three unaccompanied children. Adel, the eldest, worked alongside the men, farming or picking fruit.

The children registered with UNHCR in April 2013. They were provided with financial and material support—including mattresses, blankets and cooking materials—through UNHCR’s partner, International Medical Corps (IMC).

Now an IMC case manager visits them every two weeks to monitor their well-being. Adel no longer needs to work, and Khaled has recently started school. The children turned down help to find an apartment, preferring to live in a tent so that they can pack up and return to Syria as soon as it is safe to do so.

In June 2013, their father’s best friend fled Syria and at his behest sought out the children. They subsequently moved to another Syrian refugee community with the man they now call ‘uncle.’ He provides valuable adult support, though Adel insists that he is still the main protector of his siblings. Reem sees herself as fulfilling the role of their mother.

There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.

~ Nelson Mandela ~

It's all of our responsibility to protect the children of Syria, to tell their stories, and raise awareness about their plight, until they can go home. Please consider donating (or supporting), connecting, and sharing.

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1 All actions concerning children are guided by the principle of the best interests of the child, which is applied during Best Interests Assessments and Best Interests Determinations. See UNHCR, Guidelines for Determining the Best Interests of the Child, Geneva, 2008 and the UNHCR and International Rescue Committee guidebook, Field Handbook for the Implementation of UNHCR BID Guidelines, Geneva, 2011.

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Syrian Refugee Children

Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.

Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.