March 2017 marks the sixth year of the Syria Crisis. Six years that have devastated a nation, its people and its children. The quest for safety has forced over half of all Syrians from their homes since 2011. More than 6 million are internally displaced and over 4.9 million registered as refugees in neighbouring countries. Nearly 1.2 million Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe.
Between November 2015 and January 2017, more than 40,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada. In October 2016, the Canadian Red Cross teamed up with the Tim Hortons Children's Foundation to give a group of Syrian refugee youth what many would consider a quintessentially Canadian experience: a sleepover camp.
Ninety Syrian teens and 10 interpreters travelled from across Atlantic Canada to the Tim Horton Children's Camp in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia. The plan was to provide Syrian refugee youth a chance to connect with other youth throughout the Maritimes while participating in team-building activities that would help them gain confidence and provide emotional healing.
On the shores of Northumberland Strait, these Syrian newcomers learned a lot about Canada and a lot about themselves. These are some of their stories.
Meet the Campers
It’s been a challenging year in general.
Music is very important to me. I’ve been playing [piano] since I was young. I took lessons in Syria with a teacher. I’d like to buy a piano someday here in Canada because I left my piano in Syria.
Mohamad & Fred
I cannot express how much I think this camp gave these kids the chance to just be kids! They did not need to think of wars, or bombs, or hunger, or soldiers, or the horrors some of them have had to see and experience in their own country and on their journey here.
They had a safe environment to laugh, hang out with other kids, bond, exercise and take part in some really cool activities like archery and rock climbing.
Masa & Yasser
We’ve been here for about eight or nine months. Before Canada we were in Jordan for three years.
When we got the call about coming to Canada my phone was on silent but I was holding it in my hand. If I hadn’t been holding it, I would have missed the call. I wouldn’t be in Canada now.
Through games, classes, and eating together, the kids were mainly just enjoying their time, but most importantly they were learning to listen to others, take turns, how to interact with people they just met, and how to follow rules and appreciate each other.
Many of the younger campers told me ‘When I grow up and there's an opportunity like this, I would love to volunteer like you Tamara and help out to share my experience and say that once I was in your situation.’ They are definitely appreciative of everything the Tim Hortons camp and the Canadian Red Cross and Canada has done for them, and just by hearing their thoughts, I expect them to be great Canadian citizens when they grow up.
They're excited about growing up and investing their time the same way we do, just to volunteer and help others within the community.
Here is safe.
All I knew about Canada before was that the winter is so cold.
I’m enjoying school here. I’m learning French and English at the same time. That’s so good!
Journeys of Hope
It was a particularly special moment for Ghassan, who was asked to deliver the first welcome speech. As a young boy, Ghassan had come to Canada with his family from Lebanon - leaving on the last flight out of Beirut before the airport was bombarded.
As he greeted the Syrian families, Ghassan saw a boy the same age as he was when he arrived in Canada. Taking a few extra moments, Ghassan gave him some words of comfort.
“There was a young boy, probably around 10 years old, he was looking around everywhere,” Ghassan said. “I told him that it would be difficult in the beginning. But I said not to worry, it would get easier with time, and that everything would be okay.”
That weekend, Red Cross volunteers and employees were on hand at the Welcome Centre in Montréal to help 161 men, women and children as they received warm clothes, food, and hygiene items just prior to meeting with their sponsors. For some, it was an emotional reunion, as they embraced loved ones that have not been seen in many years.
Exhaustion and tears were turned into smiles full of relief and hope.
Our Collective Impact
- 11,012 Syrian refugees supported by the Red Cross at the Welcome Centre in Montreal
- 75,546 basic items distributed, including winter clothing, comfort kits, calling cards and teddy bears
- 2,954 refugee children participated in play, recreational or educational activities while being supported at interim hotel lodging sites
- 843 Syrian refugees received physical examinations
- 477 transportation rides provided to and from medical appointments
- 35 projects through partnerships with community organizations
- 3,900+ Syrian refugees being supported through integration projects
- 1,500+ Syrian refugee children and youth participating in recreational activities
Photo credit: Jan-Prawdzik, CBSA
Yesterday our village was bombed, there is nothing left
Moussa and Hosin fled Syria a year ago with their six young children. They feared the war would only get worse. Now their village has been destroyed by bombs.
“We lived in an area under ISIS control. The news said that our home was bombed yesterday.” said mum Moussa. “It was extremely difficult to come from Syria here with all our children. They are very young and they were scared especially in the boat trip from Turkey to Lesvos. But it was the right thing to do.”
Since arriving in Nea Kavala, Moussa and Hosin have welcomed another baby into their family. One month old Stabrak is safe from war but is likely to spend her early life in a camp. Moussa holds Stabrak in her arms and says over the last twelve months the camp has improved a lot, but it’s still difficult to raise children in such cramped conditions, without any certainty about the future and limited control over the present.
“We now receive cash support from the Red Cross,” she said. “Things are better with the money they give us because we know best what we need for our family. For example, we buy gas for our small cooker, spices and food that we need and clothing for the baby.”
The Hellenic Red Cross is providing cash assistance to asylum seekers and refugees currently stranded in Greece. The programme enables people to buy what they need most – be it food, medicines, clothes, mobile phone credit or public transport. In December, the Red Cross provided cash assistance to 2,750 people.
Issa, a young engineer from Aleppo, has also lived at Nea Kavala for a year and volunteers with the Red Cross. He said cash assistance gives people the dignity and independence to make choices and not be constantly asking for help: “You feel like a normal person again. I can decide what I need and what to buy.”
Striving for a feeling of normality is a constant struggle for people stranded in Greece – anything that can bring some routine or feeling of home is important. For Moussa and Hosin’s family, a big breakthrough is beginning – the kids are about to start school.
“They’re so excited and have been getting ready for weeks already,” Hosin said.
Scale of the Crisis
The conflict in Syria has created one of the most serious and daunting humanitarian crises in decades, generating needs across the region that stretch beyond description. Constant, deadly conflict is destroying lives, families, and communities. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a family in Syria that hasn't been affected by the catastrophe.
Well over one third of Syria's pre-conflict population of 22 million is living in hard to reach and besieged areas, or has sought refuge elsewhere in Syria. Meanwhile, 2.9 million Syrians are estimated to have fled to Turkey, while more than one million have gone to Lebanon, another 665,000 have sought refuge in Jordan, and 233,000 went to Iraq.
The refugee crisis stretches well beyond the Middle East, with European nations, in particular, struggling to cope with the influx of tens of thousands of desperate and vulnerable children, women, and men – from Syria and elsewhere.
The extreme hardship endured by millions of people inside Syria – and by the scores of refugees who have fled the country – continues to grow by the day. The shocking images of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy lying face-down on a Turkish beach in September 2015 came to symbolize their plight, while highlighting the tragedy unfolding along Mediterranean shores.
The ICRC's sister organization, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies or IFRC, which is charged with coordinating the Movement's response to natural disasters, health crises, and other emergencies, stresses that "beyond migration statistics, there are lives," and they call for a stop to the indifference towards "people on the move".
"That's 60 million tragedies," the President of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, said in a tweet.
Like the drowned Syrian boy that caught the world's attention, half of the world's refugees are said to be children.
Early in 2016, 21 National Red Cross Societies from the European Union sounded the alarm over the number of people dying in the waters of the Mediterranean while trying to reach safe harbour.
"Over 5,000 people are believed to have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean in the last 18 months," the leaders of the National Societies wrote in an opinion piece in May 2016. "This makes these waters the most dangerous borders in the world. This should trigger action, commitment and support."
Protecting the Vulnerable
During the past 60 years the main victims of war have been civilians. The protection of civilians during armed conflict is therefore a cornerstone of international humanitarian law (IHL). This protection extends to their public and private property. IHL also identifies and protects particularly vulnerable civilian groups such as women, children and the displaced.
The protection of civilians extends to those trying to help them, in particular medical units and humanitarian or relief bodies providing essentials such as food, clothing and medical supplies. The warring parties are required to allow access to such organizations. The Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I specifically require belligerents to facilitate the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The funeral of Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer first-aid worker Mohammad Khadraa, killed in Douma while working in a clearly marked SARC vehicle in April. Showing incredible bravery, SARC volunteers and staff have been on the front line, recovering wounded, performing on-the-spot first aid, handing out food and medicines to people in desperate need.
The people of Syria need your help
Six years of violence has brought death and destruction to Syria.
Millions of people have been forced from their homes or have fled the country. Many of them are children.
In spite of the dangers, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent continues to work daily, with unparalleled access, to alleviate suffering across Syria. The Canadian Red Cross continues to support SARC in providing essential health care, medicines and medical supplies to those most affected by the crisis.
But the scale of the crisis is greater than anything the Red Cross and Red Crescent has faced in the last 15 years.
We must do more. With your help, we can.
Support the Syria Crisis Fund today.
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Canadian Red Cross Tim Hortons Camp Videos: Produced by A for Adventure
Photos: Canadian Red Cross, Syrian Arab Red Crescent, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, IRCC, CBSA
The Canadian Red Cross would like to thank generous individuals, governments and corporate and community partners for their financial support of our continued work within Syria and with those affected by the Syria Crisis.