“For every act of violence against children that creates headlines and cries of outrage, there are many more that go unreported.”
Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director
As we approach the first post-pandemic Halloween, and Canadian children are excitedly counting the days until they can go trick or treating again, the story of three-year-old Alan Kurdi has been largely forgotten.
Kurdi was Syrian Kurdish boy whose death by drowning on the shores of the Mediterranean six years ago triggered international headlines and cries of outrage. The riveting photograph of the dead child, lying face downwards on the beach, even caused political waves in Canada and prompted immigration authorities to fast-track his surviving family’s application for asylum.
But for every Alan Kurdi, whose image spurred action, countless other girls and boys live out their lives as anonymous, voiceless victims of war, violence, political instability, and grinding poverty. This is according to front-line humanitarian workers and human rights advocates who work with some of the world’s most deprived children.
In Lebanon alone, 1.3 million children are severely affected by the multiple crises the country is facing simultaneously. Shireen Makarem, Advocacy and Campaign Manager for Save the Children, said from her home in Beirut. She was speaking with Convivium shortly after violence erupted in the streets of the city on October 14, killing seven people and injuring dozens. She explained she was unable to get to her office that day.
“Gunmen crouched behind cars and fired wildly at apartment blocks or rushed out from cover to launch rocket-propelled grenades,” The Economist reported. “Frantic parents searched for safe routes to collect children from school.”
“Children in Lebanon are lucky if they can go to school,” Makarem told Convivium. “About 700,000 children, a third of the school-age population, received no education last year.”
“During the last two years, between the economic crisis and the pandemic, we have reached breaking point,” she added. “Children suffer because families are facing unprecedented challenges including acute poverty. We have electricity in Beirut for one or two hours a day. There are shortages of food, medicine, fuel, everything.”
She said all this takes an unbearable toll on Lebanon’s children. “With the reduction of family income, children are often forced to drop out of school and work. You see them on the streets selling flowers or tissue paper. Some are put to agricultural work where they are exploited and abused by their employers. They are in danger of sexual abuse, or of being recruited by criminal gangs.”
Makarem said Save the Children is working with local partners and aims to send all of the 700,000 children to school.
Nuri Kino, leader of A Demand for Action (ADFA), a Sweden-based humanitarian aid and advocacy organization, has witnessed firsthand the plight of Lebanon’s orphaned and abandoned children. He was recently on an emergency relief trip to Beirut where the volunteer-based NGO works with refugee families.
“Lebanon is no longer a country in free fall,” he told Convivium. “It has crashed. Children in countries that crash are the most vulnerable. They can't control their situation or their destiny. And my whole body and soul ache for them.”
“Everywhere I saw homeless kids, kids suffering in hospital without medicine. Words fail me—even though I’m a writer and journalist — when I try to describe their suffering,” he said.
He said the 2018 movie Capernaum reflects the situation of Lebanon’s children today. A film from Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, Capernaum dramatizes the story of a boy who has fled an abusive home and struggles for survival in the mean streets of Beirut.
“Homeless and abandoned children in Canada have social services to take care of them, but in Lebanon there are no such supports,” Kino added.
He explained that one day his organization had a call from the director of an orphanage run by small Lebanese NGO called Village of Peace and Love. The director was desperately seeking help, because their funding had been withdrawn and there was no money even to buy food for the children. The children in their care were from particularly difficult backgrounds and were in danger of becoming homeless.
Moved by the stories of the children and confident that donors would come through with funds, Kino and the ADFA’s local volunteers agreed to take over the running of the orphanage in partnership with the local NGO.
With funds raised from private donors, they moved the children to a new, more comfortable and spacious home with a garden. They renamed the orphanage Safe Haven Lebanon and created a pleasant and nurturing environment.
“A sanctuary of love and hope for these children,” says Kino. “We took in children who were thrown onto garbage heaps, raped girls, kids who had been sold to human traffickers. At first, they were terrified of adults, but now it’s so rewarding to see them smile and hear their laughter.”
“We can’t give all the needy children of Lebanon a sanctuary— we wish we could—but we will do our best for the 26 who are now in our care,” he says.
Kino’s point —that it is impossible for small organizations to care for over a million children— should be taken seriously by the international community, including the Canadian government.
Rebekah Sears is the policy analyst and government relations specialist at the Peace and Justice office of MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) in Ottawa. Her organization has been working in Lebanon since the 1970s. MCC brought relief to thousands of Lebanese families whose homes were destroyed by the explosion near Beirut’s port last year.
Sears offered some suggestions.
“As an active supporter and signatory to the Grand Bargain, (an agreement signed in 2016 between donor governments and humanitarian aid organizations) Canada could re-affirm its commitment to vulnerable populations,” Sears said in an interview. “While refugee resettlement is one piece of the solution, it’s more important to address the root causes of the problems, and to support NGOs that work on diverse needs at the local level.”
Asked about the effect of international sanctions, she said: “We also need to re-think the use of sanctions. Although often seen as a means to apply pressure to states, sanctions, especially general sanctions on a state, significantly impact the population as a whole, creating even more challenges for the most vulnerable.”
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Three documents have come out of this roundtable: an adapted version of the agenda and background documents; a summary of discussion themes; and a backgrounder providing a statistical overview of Palliative Care in Canada